Garry Ste­wart is cre­at­ing a ballet about Par­lia­ment House — and its feud­ing politi­cians — for Can­berra’s cen­te­nary, writes Jane Al­bert

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Dance -

IT’S a warm, mid-au­tumn af­ter­noon and I’m bunkered down in the Syd­ney Opera House’s ballet re­hearsal stu­dio where the move­ment is spiky and com­bat­ive as Garry Ste­wart puts the artists of the Aus­tralian Ballet through their paces. Ste­wart, one of Aus­tralia’s fore­most chore­og­ra­phers and the Aus­tralian Dance Theatre’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, has been com­mis­sioned to cre­ate a work to com­mem­o­rate the 25th an­niver­sary of Par­lia­ment House.

The creative di­rec­tor of the Cen­te­nary of Can­berra cel­e­bra­tions, Robyn Archer, has asked him to chore­o­graph a work about the build­ing it­self: a ballet about a fa­mous build­ing that ref­er­ences the politi­cians who do bat­tle within its walls (hence the spiky chore­og­ra­phy). It’s a cu­ri­ous con­cept, one that the AB’s pub­lic­ity depart­ment ad­dresses head-on. ‘‘ Writ­ing about mu­sic is like danc­ing about ar­chi­tec­ture,’’ reads the first line of the press re­lease. ‘‘ A seem­ingly dif­fi­cult task.’’ It is the first time the con­tem­po­rary chore­og­ra­pher has worked with a clas­si­cal Aus­tralian ballet com­pany, and the chal­lenge is daunt­ing.

What did Ste­wart make of it all when he was ap­proached by Archer to ful­fil this un­usual brief with a com­pany he had had his eye on for years? ‘‘ I was de­lighted be­cause I al­ways wanted to work with this com­pany,’’ he says. ‘‘ Then when I re­ally thought about it, I thought it was ac­tu­ally quite a re­spon­si­bil­ity . . . And a dif­fi­cult sub­ject mat­ter. When­ever I men­tioned it to some­one they would look at me quite puz­zled, like ‘ How are you go­ing to do that?’ ’’ Even AB artis­tic di­rec­tor David McAl­lis­ter con­cedes the brief was not with­out its com­plex­i­ties. ‘‘ Ar­chi­tec­ture is such a static, built space and dance is so ephemeral, a mov­ing art form [so] it is some­thing that quite a chal­lenge, I think.’’

Ev­ery­one agrees, then, there is in­her­ent risk. Yet if any­one can pull it off, Ste­wart can. He is a man who seems en­er­gised by risk, who likes to push the bound­aries and chal­lenge stereo­types, as he did with Held, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with New York pho­tog­ra­pher Lois Green­field, who used stop-mo­tion pho­tog­ra­phy to cap­ture in real time Ste­wart’s ex­plo­sive chore­og­ra­phy; or G, which de­con­structs clas­si­cal ballet’s holy of holies, Giselle, into a stripped-back new work that has toured Europe and is be­ing pre­sented lo­cally.

McAl­lis­ter’s ini­tial reser­va­tions that Ste­wart would have his dancers spin­ning on their heads and hurtling through the air a la ADT were put to rest when he watched the many clas­si­cal works Ste­wart has been cre­at­ing on Euro­pean dance com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Birm­ing­ham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet of Flan­ders. Hav­ing kept a close eye on Mon­u­ment, this new work’s grand ti­tle, McAl­lis­ter is con­fi­dent Ste­wart will per­form his magic again. ‘‘ What I love about what Garry is do­ing is it com­pletely comes from the build­ing and as a piece of work it’s absolutely fas­ci­nat­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ You wouldn’t need to know a thing about Par­lia­ment House ... it’s just a beau­ti­ful piece of dance, which is in­spired by the space.’’

Archer never had any doubts as to who should be in­volved. She was de­ter­mined to have the AB present a unique Can­berra pro­gram as part of the sea­son of dance and theatre she has co-com­mis­sioned in her year­long cel­e­bra­tions, which in­clude the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany’s The Se­cret River and the Aus­tralian pre­miere of Bell Shake­speare’s Henry 4. Archer has long been fa­mil­iar with

is Ste­wart’s work, and pro­grammed his ADT pro­duc­tions Bird­brain and The Age of Un­beauty in her Ade­laide and Melbourne fes­ti­vals re­spec­tively.

‘‘ Garry’s ever-ex­pand­ing con­cep­tual and in­tel­lec­tual ap­proach to dance is some­thing that made him per­fect, in fact ir­re­place­able in my think­ing, for this pro­ject,’’ she says. ‘‘ This, paired with his uniquely mus­cu­lar tech­nique, seemed to me to be the very best fit to make dance about the com­bined po­etry and rigour of ar­chi­tec­ture.’’

She was also res­o­lute in her be­lief in the syn­ergy be­tween ballet and ar­chi­tec­ture, hav­ing closely fol­lowed the work of Bel­gian di­rec­tor and chore­og­ra­pher Fred­eric Fla­mand, who is fas­ci­nated by the body’s re­la­tion­ship to ar­chi­tec­ture and the built en­vi­ron­ment.

Key to Ste­wart’s ac­cep­tance of the com­mis­sion was Archer’s se­cret weapon: Par­lia­ment House ar­chi­tect, Ital­ian Aldo Gi­ur­gola. Now in his 90s and still liv­ing in Can­berra, Gi­ur­gola was not only happy to be in­volved, he was pre­pared to share with Ste­wart and the creative team the orig­i­nal con­cepts and de­signs that re­sulted in the con­struc­tion of this en­gine­room of Aus­tralian democ­racy.

So it was that Ste­wart and Mon­u­ment set and cos­tume de­signer Mary Moore found them­selves strolling through the curved walls, columned arch­ways and open spa­ces on a per­son­alised tour of Par­lia­ment House with its ar­chi­tect. ‘‘ We spent an af­ter­noon with him and we al­most had to pinch our­selves,’’ Ste­wart says. They found him to be a warm, in­for­ma­tive and gen­er­ous col­lab­o­ra­tor; later, he in­vited Ste­wart and com­poser Huey Ben­jamin to his apart­ment for fur­ther dis­cus­sions.

The tour was the spring­board for Ste­wart’s

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