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Unforgettable: dancer's final work remounted

Dance

Ten years after contemporary dance star Tanja Liedtke’s life was cut short by a tragic accident, Australian Dance Theatre is honouring her memory by remounting her final work under the direction of friend Kristina Chan.

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“Tanja had a committed, rigorous work ethic and she was really determined, which I guess is why she achieved so much,” says Chan, who collaborated with her to make construct and also danced in the original production.

“She would achieve it, and then go higher.

“But she was also a lot of fun as a friend. She had two sides to her – she was very serious but also a very cheeky, mischievous, funny person.”

Chan and Liedtke became friends after meeting at the Australian Dance Theatre in 1999. Seven years later, they began working together in Adelaide with Tanja’s partner Solon Ulbrich and Paul White (both of whom had also been ADT members) to create construct, a complex production that looks at the concept of building.

It was co-commissioned by London’s Southbank Centre, where it premiered in 2007, and even before it had been made it was booked for a tour of the UK. Chan says this showed the belief people had in Liedtke, who at just 29 was also preparing to take up the role of artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company.

Tragically, she was killed in a road accident in Sydney before construct had its Australian premiere in 2008. Her friends were forced to continue touring the work without her, and it won multiple Helpmann and Australian Dance Awards.

“It’s been about eight years since I performed it last,” Chan says.

“Coming back to it now feels good, and it’s interesting, all these years later, to relook at it and try to remember the essence of the work and also the fine detail.”

The trailer (above) for the original production of construct.

Chan is working with Craig Bary, who was previously a rehearsal director on construct, on the remounted production, which will be presented by the Australian Dance Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre from November 29 until December 2.

She has tapped into her memories to try to make the remounted work as close as possible to the original. However, she also wanted the three new cast members – Jana Castillo, Marlo Benjamin and Kimball Wong – to feel they could bring their own artistry to the roles.

“I have no doubt that if Tanja was here remounting the work she would make a whole bunch of changes, but it’s not my job to do that,” she says

“It’s my job to maintain the integrity of the work but also want to make it a rich and beautiful experience for the new cast.”

Described as “a sharp, rigorous and curious look at the concept of building”, construct shifts between the physical act of building and the emotional construction of lives, exploring the connections between building a home, a life, a relationship, a future and a dream.

The choreography follows a cycle of construction and destruction, with props including tools, a sawhorse, electric drills, clamps and fairy lights.

Marlo Benjamin, Craig Bary, Kristina Chan (front) and Kimball Wong during rehearsals. Photo: Chris Herzfeld

Chan – who has won multiple awards for her own choreography and was recently named the Ausdance National Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship recipient at the 2017 Australian Dance Awards – has described construct as one of the most physically demanding productions she has worked on: “Tanja was very interested in pushing the body to its limits.”

She says the bond the dancers formed while creating the original work cemented their friendship. She, Ulbrich and White then supported each other through their grief as they continued touring construct following Liedtke’s death, with other dancers filling her role.

In some ways, Chan says, its themes reflected the personal experiences of its choreographer, who was in the midst of major life changes as she prepared to take up her new role in Sydney.

“After she passed away, people started to see more in the work – because there are moments of life and death in it. There is a lot of death within the work, but it’s dealt with quite humorously.

“It’s set up to encourage the audience to laugh; it breaks that silence we’re expecting to have in an audience.

“I think the great thing about Tanja’s work is that she presents so many images that it’s clear for the audience to see and understand but there’s enough space in it for you respond in your own personal way.”

Tanja Liedtke.

ADT artistic director Garry Stewart has described Liedtke as a phenomenal talent and says it is important for her work to be shared with a new generation of dance lovers.

“ADT’s season of construct is an opportunity for a whole new audience to experience and enjoy the brilliance that was Tanja Liedtke,” he says.

“It’s also a time for the coming together of those who knew her and loved her to celebrate once again this stunning, unforgettable person.

“Like all great works, there is something relevant and timeless about construct. Its beauty, charm and wit are completely fresh and ingenious.”

Chan expects opening night will be an emotional experience.

“A lot of her friends and family and colleagues will be coming to see it. That collective emotion will be heightened, but I feel pretty prepared for it.”

The Australian Dance Theatre will present construct at the Space Theatre from November 29 until December 2.

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