Seven years ago, dancer and choreographer Liz Lea relocated from the UK to Australia. She left behind her a flourishing practice, largely as a solo performer working in the areas of classical Indian dance and the martial arts. She also had a particular interest in Western dancers who, historically, had been inspired by Asian dance, including Anna Pavlova and the American modern dance pioneer, Ruth St Denis. Lea became adept at restaging works by those artists.
But shortly after arriving in Australia in 2009, Lea found her way to Canberra, initially to take up a Scholars and Artists in Residence Fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive. With that fellowship, Lea pursued her interest in Anna Pavlova, who famously collected birds while on her various tours to Asia and Australia. But while in Canberra Lea was offered the opportunity, which she accepted, to take on the role of artistic director of Canberra Dance Theatre. In addition, there was work for her with Canberra's youth dance organisation QL2. So, although her family was in Sydney, she stayed on in Canberra.
The story of Lea's work in Canberra since 2009 is quite remarkable. With funding for dance difficult to come by, and becoming harder, Lea has shown her ability to think laterally and over those seven years has secured funding in surprising ways, and found support and commissions from unusual sources. Her establishment of the GOLDS, a company of dancers over 55 working through Canberra Dance Theatre, has been a high point. The company's most recent show, Great Sport!, commissioned by the National Museum of Australia with input from the National Film and Sound Archive, Belconnen and Tuggeranong Arts Centres, and Parkinson's ACT, and with funding from ACT Health and artsACT, is indicative of Lea's extraordinary determination to make dance in Canberra.
Great Sport! was, however, a finale for Lea in her role as artistic director of Canberra Dance Theatre. She has recently resigned from that role to pursue a range of other options, including a return to performing herself. She has big plans for a solo show called RED.
"This work is still in progress and I was lucky to have a residency in Sydney with Critical Path in January to begin working on it. It will explore an artist's journey through performance, film and commentary," she says. "The title comes from the colour of blood. Blood flows through us all and I want to take a light-hearted look at the lifeblood of an artist's journey – the extremes we go through to be on stage, and the highs and lows of a performing life."
Lea has commissioned a dramaturg, Brian Lucas, to work with her on RED. She is also being mentored by dance filmmaker Sue Healey for the film component of the show and she will dance choreography commissioned from Lucas, Martin del Amo, Vicki van Hout, and former Canberra dancer Kate Denborough.
But RED, which will premiere in 2017, is just the tip of the iceberg. Shortly Lea will take part in the 2016 Strange Attractor program in which she and fellow participants, including ACT dancer Alison Plevey and former Canberran Shona Erskine, will engage in a creative development program, which will include discussions and interdisciplinary collaboration culminating in a public presentation in July. Then, in August, she will be involved in a show at Belconnen Arts Centre called India Meets, which will take Lea back to her interest and training in Indian classical dance, and which will have input from Seeta Patel, London-born exponent of Bharata Natyam, who will be in Australia on a British Council Fellowship. August will also see Lea taking part in Strings Attached, the debut performance by a new dance collective led by Alison Plevey called the Australian Dance Party.
Lea is also looking forward to the development of some of her initiatives connecting dance and science. In 2012, she was choreographer in residence at the CSIRO Discovery Centre, Black Mountain, where she worked with Indigenous dancer Tammi Gissell on a research project inspired by the habits of the red-tailed black cockatoo. It led in the following year to the founding by Lea of the DANscienCE Festival, which took place in Canberra in 2013, and in Brisbane in 2015. Those initiatives in the science area have grown and blossomed into some exceptional educational programs. Two of her dance/science shows, Flying Facts and Star Struck, are about to tour in Queensland through Artslink Queensland.
Flying Facts began from a seeding grant Lea received to develop a show, eventually named InFlight, which examined Australian aviation history using materials in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive. During the research period, Questacon asked Lea if a science component could be incorporated. InFlight went ahead as planned but a children's show looking at how planes and birds fly, Flying Facts, also emerged and scored considerable success. The other children's show, Star Struck, grew from work Lea did with astronomers and scientists from Mount Stromlo Observatory. It explores the astronomy of the northern and southern constellations and now Lea is exploring the possibility of a new collaboration with Mount Stromlo incorporating dancers from Australia and Singapore. And, fascinated by David Attenborough's work on the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, Lea is working on a new educational show with characters called Manta, Ray, Slinky the Shark and the like. She has a small grant to undertake further research for this show in Queensland.
"These shows have to be fun and accessible," she says. "There has to be a serious scientific framework so that teachers and parents are involved. But the kids relate so well to the dance elements and to the strong, theatrical presentation that we give them."
There are many other plans, including a major exposition of work, which Lea has named BOLD, scheduled to take place in Canberra early in 2017. It will celebrate the legacy of dance in Australia with, if further funding becomes available, a galaxy of stars from the world of Australian dance.
Canberra audiences first saw Lea in early 2006 when, while on a brief visit to Australia, she presented three of her solo works at the Choreographic Centre. I reviewed that show for The Canberra Times and remarked then that Lea "presents the unpredictable and delivers with skill and intelligence". She is still taking surprising steps and making work that crosses boundaries and defies easy categorisation. But, in 2006, I was scarcely aware of the drive that Lea has to make dance in any and every situation that comes to her mind. In her determined and eclectic approach she is putting Canberra and its culture and resources on the map.
Strange Attractor, public session with the artists, July 1, at 6:30 pm and July 2, at 6:00 pm, Gorman Arts Centre, $10, www.strangeattractor.com.au; India Meets, August 20, Belconnen Arts Centre; Strings Attached, August 25-27, Nishi Playhouse, New Acton, $30