Arts / Dance theatre on its toes for the big birthday

Dancers Esme Kolitz, Suzanne Carroll and Penny Richards. Photo by Lorna Sim

THERE are few dance companies in the world that can claim to have been founded by a brilliant international scientist, but Canberra Dance Theatre, now celebrating its 40th birthday, is one such.

It was created in the early ’70s by scientist-dancer Graham Farquhar, who was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in 2015, named Senior Australian of the Year in 2018 and was also the first Australian to win a Kyoto Prize for his work in plant biophysics and photosynthesis.

Since then the CDT has cornered the Canberra market in combining original and exploratory modern dance practice with deep community involvement. Present-day classes and performances range over Hilal Egyptian dance, performance for children and teenagers with additional needs, dance for daring over 55s in the “GOLDs”, (Growing Old Disgracefully) classical ballet and exotic fan-dancing.

Notable dancers working with CDT have included Aussie dance heavyweights such as Cheryl Stock, Kai Tai Chan, Bernadette Walong, Graeme Watson, and the luminous dance couple Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser, who so often appeared in original works for the company.

But as well as those dance movers and shakers, there was space for up-and-coming talents, first seen with the company. This writer remembers moments of exquisitely quiet dance by Chi Long and Douglas Amarfio, who both went on to dance careers interstate and overseas.

Early ’80s work with, from left, Graham Farquhar, Tina Harris, Russell Cunningham and Vesna Hindley-Noble.

The company began in the early ’70s when Prof Farquhar, himself a ballet dancer and now patron of the company, created the National University Dance Ensemble, with the wicked acronym “NUDE” raising a few eyebrows. He was joined by Diana Shohet and Lorna Marshall.

In 1978, it was renamed Canberra Dance Ensemble, with Stephanie Burridge becoming the first artistic director and staying for an extraordinary 23 years. The organisation was incorporated in 1981, and in 1989 under Burridge’s watch, the name was changed to Canberra Dance Theatre.

After Burridge left to pursue an academic career, which has resulted in her becoming South-East Asia’s most prominent dance historian, Amalia Hordern, Megan Millband and 2017 “CityNews” Artist of the Year Liz Lea followed as directors.

The organisation’s artistic director is now Jacqui Simmonds who, she tells “CityNews”, grew up in Canberra knowing about CDT, returning after many years away just 18 months ago. The business manager is Canberra theatre and dance identity Neil Roach who, with Simmonds and volunteers, manages the office, dance programs, community performances and classes.

Roach says the main game is looking to the future, not back at the past. Simmonds says “inclusivity” is the keynote at CDT, describing the common values of the company as being related to “health, body, mind and souls”. Their website reassures people: “You don’t have to worry… we encourage, not criticise,” and also advising that The GOLDs are…”for movers and non-movers who are over 55”.

“Come to us, come and try,” Simmonds says to all Canberrans with the urge to move.

It falls to her to stage a three-day celebration of 40 years since Burridge took over – she’ll be here from Singapore.

Central to the program is a new contemporary ballet work by K-Ballet star Fusako Skelton. Other segments will be Burridge’s gothic work, “Mist” featuring Frankenhaeuser with violin played by Kailin Tong, a re-staging of “Annette”, from Lea’s work “Great Sport!” which won the company a 2017 Australian Dance Award. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman’s “Woman of the River” will be performed by Amanda Tutalo, an Amalia Hordern solo, “Pamoja” and a work performed by Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer.

And the ending? A new comic work “Happiness is…” collaboratively created with Emma Saunders.

“Happiness Is… 40 Years of Canberra Dance Theatre”, The Street Theatre, 7pm, October 12-13 and 5pm on October 14.

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