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