The last Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) production Birdbrain was a performance highlight of 2001. Choreographed by ADT artistic director Garry Stewart, Birdbrain deconstructed Swan Lake in an intelligent, high-energy and ruthless manner.

It wasn’t to everyone’s taste to see one of dance’s classic texts demolished and reinvented. When I spoke with Stewart in August last year, he empathised with peers who shared an impatience with the conservativeness of dance, relishing instead the dissolution of the barriers that exist between genres.

So it came as a surprise when Stewart informed me on the phone this week that the latest show The Age Of Unbeauty really is the antithesis to Birdbrain, and that he wouldn’t have been surprised if his regular audiences hated it. Stewart explained.

The Age of Unbeauty is for me much more intuitive and personal and poetic, so it really can’t be pinned down to very, very identifiable social and political issues. However, they do permeate the work, said Stewart.

He explained that his own artistic process is to bounce to the opposite pole to the work that you’ve made previously and that his oeuvre is varied because he resists remaining in the one place and remaining staid. But there’s another reason for shift from the deconstructive to the constructive. Opening night for Birdbrain was 11 September 2001 and three weeks later the company was performing in New York.

We came from being incredibly jubilant to being incredibly depressed within a couple of hours, said Stewart. Fortunately the show had already sold out prior to September 11 -¦ By the time we arrived there, the city was already in recovery mode and people were really wanting to get on with it. There was a quite strange feeling and atmosphere in the streets -¦ everyone was very quiet.

The Age Of Unbeauty is thus about nothing less than the meaning of truth and beauty in a time of intolerance and violence. With the collaboration of dramaturg David Bonney, this meant exploring everything from the global refugee situation to the history of incarceration and torture, while avoiding any staged literal representations. Presented at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival as a work-in-progress, the show attracted predictably mixed but productive reviews. Most notably, The Australian’s Alan Brissenden alluded to the eventual success of Birdbrain following a series of public showings: a process that proved successful and might yet again.

On a fundamental level, the tools of the company have not changed, and include their trademark blend of movement genres, everything from ballet, yoga, breakdancing and gymnastics. The Fringe showings featured suited dancers performing within an urban dystopia, with bandaged deportees and a deformed Adam and Eve.

There are hints though (in Stewart’s vision) that in the midst of horror, beauty remains possible. In the segment called Fight, the Korean martial arts form Hapkido is used to create a formalistic movement metaphor for the idea of fighting, rioting, chaos in the street. (He reassured with me, with a laugh, that it would not be like West Side Story.)

But in this work I think I’ve also explored another dynamic at the other end of the spectrum which is quite minimal and quite slow and quite soft and poetic as well, he said.

 

The Age Of Unbeauty plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 6 July. Tickets range from $30 to $39 and may be booked on 9250 7777.

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