New works are a monumental task

New works are a monumental task


With The Australian Ballet, May 23-25, Canberra Theatre.

Andrew Killian and Lana Jones in rehearsal for <i>Monument</i>.

Andrew Killian and Lana Jones in rehearsal for Monument.Credit:Lynette Wills


Australian Dance Theatre, June 13-14, Canberra Theatre.


Bookings: 6275 2700 or via the website

Garry Stewart's approach to making dance is a bold and intrepid one: he is a fearless risk-taker. Artistic director of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre since 1999, Stewart will be in Canberra shortly. His choreography will be danced by two different companies in the space of three weeks.

First up in May is Monument, the eagerly awaited commission to Stewart from Robyn Archer and the Australian Ballet to make a work about Parliament House for Canberra's centenary celebrations. Three weeks later in June, Stewart is bringing his Australian Dance Theatre to Canberra with a performance of G, his unique take on the 19th-century romantic ballet, Giselle - a ballet about love, betrayal, death and redemption.

Monument is part of the Australian Ballet's triple bill Symmetries and Stewart is quick to agree that the question ''How do you make a ballet about Parliament House?'' is a good one. Following two face-to-face sessions with the architect of Parliament House, Romaldo Giurgola, Stewart found that it was the classical nature of Giurgola's building that was the inspiration he was looking for: the columns, the bi-lateral symmetry and those architectural features that look back to Giurgola's Italian heritage. He was also interested in the fact Giurgola wanted to create something that existed on a human scale, something that didn't dominate the landscape, but that was actually harmonious in the environment. Those features presented Stewart with an ideal starting point. ''There is a harmony of space in the building,'' he says. ''That provides a perfect analogy for working with classical ballet dancers.''

Stewart's choreography for the Australian Dance Theatre is edgy and brutally physical. It is also quite distinctive. It draws on a wide range of movement, literary and technological sources. With G, for example, Stewart was inspired by an article in the journal Medical Humanities entitled Giselle, madness and death, which examines 19th-century beliefs on the interconnectedness of illness and madness, and the idea that hysteria is a dance-like form of madness. His other recent works have been influenced by neurological body maps, new technologies such as 3D graphics, and the notion of colliding bodies.

But Stewart, whose own dance background also includes a brief period of training at the Australian Ballet School, is clear about the existence of a common ground from which he can work, no matter what company he is working with.

''I am interested in a forceful presence of the body, an amplified performative presence,'' he says. ''What I like is an immediacy to the mode of delivery, an assertiveness of the body. So there is a commonality in what I want to achieve with ballet dancers and with my ADT dancers.''

He suggests that he could equally well make a work about Parliament House with the techniques of the martial arts. For him, the ballet vocabulary is simply a different pedagogy to be manipulated to express his ideas. He also likes to mix vocabularies and has incorporated into Monument some ''tutting'', a hip-hop movement style named after King Tutankhamun, in which the limbs are held and moved at geometric angles, similar to the positions that are familiar to us from figures on Ancient Egyptian art.

Principal dancer Lana Jones has been rehearsing a major role in Monument. She says that the rehearsal environment has been a creative experience but quite intense.

''Garry is very focused and he works very fast,'' Jones says. ''His working methods are quite different from what I have experienced before but my pas de deux with Andrew [Killian] is actually quite classical. It has been interesting, too, watching him work with other dancers, especially the way he has choreographed the two opposing groups of dancers representing the political forces of the House of Representatives and the Senate.''

On the other hand G, which dates to 2008, stands on the other side of Stewart's choreographic output, even though many of the moves are underpinned by the vocabulary of ballet. Like Birdbrain, Stewart's deconstruction of Swan Lake made in 2000, G is an example of Stewart's interest in referencing works from the dance canon.

But G is not really deconstructed as much as compacted. The characters in G are known by the initial of their name: G is Giselle; A is Albrecht, the prince in disguise; H is Hilarion a gamekeeper who loves G. And the narrative is distilled into gestures and fragments of movement, with the whole work moving constantly and inexorably from left to right across the stage. It is an example of those of his works where a motivating idea is stripped to its barest bones, and where the abstracted elements become source material for an investigation that circumnavigates the idea rather than dwells on the obvious or follows a storyline.

Both Monument and G draw on new music, electronic scores by Huey Benjamin for Monument and by Luke Smiles for G. They also draw on new technologies as design elements. Monument uses 3D computer-animated graphics projected on a video screen to show Parliament House growing before our eyes. G uses an LED screen where words, patterns and colours flow.

Stewart's work challenges and makes demands. But it emerges from highly developed structures and deeply thought-out plans and it is intrinsically rewarding in its ability to transport audiences to a place beyond their expectations.

Within a three-week time-frame, Canberra audiences will have two very different opportunities to see the work of an Australian choreographer who aims for physical virtuosity from his dancers, embraces the latest technologies, and who likes to abstract and reference. An unusual luxury.

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