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Canberra Today 15°/18° | Monday, March 4, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Hope springs from Gretel’s real story of a stroke

Daughter Chloe, left, with stroke survivor Gretel Burgess, who stars in her own dance-theatre production “A Stroke of Luck”. Photo: Andrew Sikorski

A PLAY about the experience of having a stroke is about to take the stage in Canberra, but it’s been a long time coming. 

“A Stroke of Luck” reflects the real-life story of stroke survivor Gretel Burgess, a dancer and social worker who, at 42, had a stroke while holidaying in the Daintree forest with her family.

She has, on her own admission, been blessed. 

“I have been really lucky I had youth on my side and I had a dance background, which helped,” Burgess tells me. 

Sure, she lost her driver’s licence, her ability to walk with ease and a bit of peripheral vision, but it wasn’t long before she got them back and was to work with stroke survivors every week, learning just how fortunate she had been.

Raised in Sydney, Burgess had initially trained in communications and theatre media at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst. 

A natural dancer, she travelled on a scholarship to a university in Padang Panjang in West Sumatra in 1999 to learn Indonesian dancing, a skill she was able to use dancing with asylum seekers when her husband was posted to Christmas Island.

She, her husband and her three children, led a peripatetic lifestyle for many years while he worked and she studied social work. 

After the stroke, they ended up in Canberra, where she met up with Pip Buining, a former teaching colleague from the famed The McDonald College in Sydney and by now a well-established director in Canberra. She would become director and dramaturg for “A Stroke of Luck”.

Although Burgess has discovered many artists who’ve experienced medical conditions go through health-funding channels, her lucky streak prevailed throughout the development process and she has received some ACT government funding.

“A Stroke of Luck” began as a 10-minute dance created and performed by her for “Dance on the Edge” at Belconnen Arts Centre in 2018, followed by a second such work at Belco in 2019, and a third in 2021.

Finally, the idea coalesced into a full-length work in three sections, before, during and after the stroke, and last year she approached QL2 Dance at Gorman Arts Centre for support to create a full show. 

In part 1, “Coagulation”, her real-life daughter Chloe, 18, plays the villainous Blood Clot, possibly caused, new research suggests, by a connection between fear and extreme workplace anxiety. 

Part 2, “Diversion”, deals with the sheer terror Burgess experienced in September 2014 when she was unexpectedly hit with a stroke. Here Chloe becomes herself as an eight-year-old, as the play focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter after the stroke.

In part 3, “Liability”, the action gets funny, for in developing the play, she and Buining discovered that some parts of her post-stroke life have been not just a bit amusing but hilarious. 

For one thing, Burgess developed a shopping addiction, buying 25 versions of the same dress, a dog costume, a trampoline and a holiday to NZ, which got the whole family into a lot of trouble. 

According to Buining, dance-theatre is a very apt description of what the show is, with movement, costumes and a lot of props – think of all that shopping.

“We’ve never tried to make light of it, but Gretel has always been quite an eccentric personality so she always brings joy and 100 per cent of who she is to what she does,” she says. 

And does her play have a happy ending?

Well, she’s doing pretty well, having worked with children and teenagers with Down syndrome in Canberra, adults with stroke and acute brain injury and also teaching for the Wellbeing dance programs at Belco Arts.

But Burgess would prefer to say, it’s been “more like a case of making lemonade out of lemon juice, using something unpleasant to create something pleasant.”

“A Stroke of Luck”, QL2 Dance, Gorman Arts Centre, Braddon, February 24-26.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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