With L, Elizabeth Dalman celebrates 50 years of Australian Dance Theatre

With L, Elizabeth Dalman celebrates 50 years of Australian Dance Theatre

L. The Mirramu Dance Company. The Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. July 15, 10.30am and 7.30pm. Tickets: theq.net.au.

It is an astonishing feat for an Australian dance company, let alone a contemporary dance company, to be celebrating 50 years of ongoing activity. But that is exactly what the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre, or ADT as it is commonly known, will be doing when Elizabeth Dalman returns to Adelaide, her home town, for just one night in July. There she will present L, a reworking of her highly successful Sapling to Silver, which she first showed in Canberra in 2011. Dalman founded ADT, in conjunction with English-born classical dancer Leslie White, in 1965 and she directed the company until 1975. Directors since then have included Jonathan Taylor, Leigh Warren, Meryl Tankard and, currently, Garry Stewart.

Elizabeth Dalman in Sapling to Silver, now reworked by her as L. Photo: Barbie Robinson

Elizabeth Dalman in Sapling to Silver, now reworked by her as L. Photo: Barbie RobinsonCredit:Barbie Robinson

The exact date of ADT's foundation, the day the company received its registration papers, June 10, has already been honoured. Dalman staged an event in the Adelaide Arcade where she had a small dance studio in the 1960s.

"We had about 100 people in attendance, in addition to lots of passers-by who were curious about what was happening," Dalman says. "We had a small exhibition of photographs and costumes and Garry Stewart and I cut a cake. The Governor of South Australia and the Lord Mayor of Adelaide were our guests and both gave speeches. There was also a performance of a short section from This Train, one of my early ADT works."

Miranda Wheen in the Firebird tutu once worn by Elizabeth Dalman . Photo: Barbie Robinson

Miranda Wheen in the Firebird tutu once worn by Elizabeth Dalman . Photo: Barbie RobinsonCredit:Barbie Robinson

The Adelaide performance of L, to be danced by Dalman and her Bungendore-based Mirramu Dance Company, will take place on July 18 at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Always a strong and determined woman, Dalman self-funded this return to Adelaide when she discovered that there was to be no gala dance event to celebrate the historic 50-year anniversary.

"A planned gala in Adelaide was pulled due to lack of funding," Dalman says. "But I was not going to let such a significant event in the history of Australian dance go unnoticed and I decided to take the risk and fund the event myself. Apart from wanting to honour the founding of the company, I thought it was important to celebrate the longevity of the organisation and I invited the current ADT members to be part of my plans. I asked Garry Stewart if he would present a 20 to 30-minute section from one of his works. He agreed and a section of his Be Your Self will be our opener. Mirramu will follow with L."

Local performance

Canberra region dance-goers have the opportunity to see L at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre before its performance in Adelaide. Dalman says she has made some changes to Sapling to Silver, tightened up the production, and renamed it L, which is the Roman numeral for 50, and also the first letter of Liz, the name by which she was known during her tenure as artistic director of ADT.

On one hand, the work celebrates the first 10 years of ADT with choreography that references some of Dalman's early work for the company. A particularly personal touch comes at the beginning of the work when Miranda Wheen, one of Mirramu's most accomplished performers, dances Firebird wearing the costume that Dalman herself wore as a young dancer learning her art from Adelaide teacher Nora Stewart.

But L is also a multi-layered work that follows Dalman's dance journey through to the present. Her life in dance has had its rough moments, especially in the 1970s when she was summarily dismissed from her position as artistic director of ADT. So, in addition to the historical references, another thread running through L is Dalman's search to maintain a strong spirit throughout life.

Dalman also confesses that she has always felt a particular connection to trees and a story of a eucalypt, which began as a sapling, grew into a mature tree and then "disappeared", runs through the work. An especially poignant part of L is, in fact, a duet called Tree Spirit. In Sapling to Silver it was danced by Dalman and Indigenous dancer Albert David but, with David unavailable for L, Dalman has hired Torres Strait Island dancer Hans Ahwang newly graduated from NAISDA. He will take over David's roles and Tree Spirit will continue as a duet celebrating intergenerational and cross-cultural performance.

L is the story of a vibrant life. It is the life of one courageous dancer, Dalman, and as Sapling to Silver won a Canberra Critics' Circle Award in 2011. But Dalman sees it as an Everyman story, the story of every dancer and every artist facing the pleasures and the difficulties of a creative life. It is also the story of every human being facing the ageing process and pondering how to communicate knowledge to a younger generation.

As such it seems a perfect way to celebrate 50 years of ADT as well as the contribution Dalman has made across those 50 years.

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