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Dance company finds new identity and home in historic theatre

Dance

Australian Dance Theatre says its newly renovated rehearsal and performance space at the Odeon Theatre in Norwood will help it increase South Australia’s dance reputation locally and overseas.

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It was a much-needed move for an organisation that prides itself as being Australia’s oldest contemporary dance company.

After 15 years at the cramped, multi-coloured-carpeted 1950s Wonderland Ballroom in Hawthorn, Australian Dance Theatre was ready to move into a bigger and shinier home.

“I would have looked at 20 different sites over the last two years, from places such as warehouses to even an ice-skating area,” says ADT executive director Shaun Comerford.

“This place came up out of nowhere, really. We got a call from Arts South Australia, probably in March or April last year.

“Arts South Australia knew that Patch [the former theatre company in residence] were moving out of here and that the landlord was looking for a new tenant.”

It was a rare find for the company. Real estate advertisements for purpose-built large theatre spaces are hard to come by in Australia, let alone in Adelaide.

“To be able to utilise a space like this as your home is really valuable,” Comerford says.

“We’d be the only arts company in Adelaide now with a theatre of this nature as our living space.”

The Odeon Theatre on The Parade. Photo: supplied

The building opened in 1923 as The Star Theatre movie cinema, with its front entrance and foyer (now St Louis café) off The Parade. The cinema was transformed into a performing arts theatre in the 1980s, and the front entrance was moved onto Queen Street.

By the time Australian Dance Theatre moved into the theatre in December last year, the 95-year-old building was showing signs of age. Paint was peeling off the decorative ceilings and the tired seating needed replacing to create more room for the dancers.

“We needed more space essentially for set pieces and for multiple different areas of rehearsal to happen,” Comerford says.

“We went back to Arts SA and said, ‘Look, we will need some support to make it happen’, and they came to the conversation with a really great level of support, which allowed us to upgrade the foyer, upgrade the back system and upgrade the seating system that turns it into a really adaptable presentation space.”

The not-for-profit dance company was assisted by a $340,000 funding boost from Arts SA, with the total renovation cost coming in at just under $500,000.

Local design firm Enoki was recruited for the interior design of the building, Novatech Creative Event Technology assisted with the lighting and sound systems, and Mile End seating company Acromat provided the retractable seating, which increased the theatre’s seating capacity from 216 to 221.

ADT dancers rehearse on the Odeon Theatre stage. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Artistic director Garry Stewart says the new rehearsal spaces are a big improvement on the company’s old Hawthorn ballroom.

“It’s really helpful for me as a director to be able to see rehearsals in a theatricalised environment.

“Back in the ballroom there was lots of 1950s multi-coloured carpet on the edges and lots of distractions.

“Now, seeing rehearsals in a blackened theatre space allows dancers to look at it in theatre conditions, which are the conditions that it is going to be presented in as a final work.”

Part of the renovation work focussed on maintaining the theatre’s heritage features, including the decorative ceilings in what is now known as the “breakout space” in the rehearsal and administrative section of the building, as well as the two old theatre boxes, which still line the theatre’s side wall.

One of the original boxes at the Odeon Theatre. Photo: supplied

“It was important to make sure that they [the original features] were highlighted a little bit and retained because some of the build aspects that we’ve done are modern and functional and minimalist,” Comerford says.

“Painting the ceiling black in the breakout space really draws your attention to the amazing ceiling. It really transformed it from a pasty-white, water-damaged thing to this beautiful clean, black image.”

Some of the historic features remain hidden, such as the original ceilings above the stage area, which are now covered by lighting equipment. During the renovation works, the company also discovered a couple of old theatre boxes underneath the stage area.

“The boxes would have been on either side of the building originally,” Comerford says. “What we would like to do over time is to bring up the features on them and repaint them.”

The overall look of the theatre, however, is modern. The cream-coloured paint on the exterior of the building has been replaced with charcoal grey. Inside, multiple TV screens line the black walls, and the black carpentry in the front foyer bar accentuates the contemporary feel.

Henschke Wines, which has naming rights for the bar, sells its wine exclusively as part of a sponsorship deal with the ADT.

“I think having a wine bar where the brands align really well and where people can come into a theatrical environment, see a show and enjoy a glass of wine is really good for us,” Comerford says.

The Henschke wine bar in the Odeon Theatre’s upgraded front foyer. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

The Tanja Liedtke rehearsal studio, named after a former ADT dancer who was killed in a vehicle accident just over 10 years ago, is another new addition to the theatre.

“We’ve formed a partnership with the Tania Liedtke Foundation, which her parents set up just after she passed away,” Stewart says. “They’re sponsoring the Tania Liedtke Studio, which is part of the artist in residency program that we have here.”

The Odeon Theatre will also become the home of ADT’s new International Centre for Choreography, which provides workshops and training with Australian and international choreographers.

“The cost of a dancer making a new work and then presenting it on stage can be quite expensive, even if they’re given the venue for not a lot,” Comerford says.

“We’re committed to turning this venue into a place where independent dance can thrive with our support and that also helps us develop our audience.”

The new Tanja Leidke Studio. Photo: supplied

Comerford and Stewart say engaging audiences in dance is the biggest challenge for the industry, but they believe the move to the Odeon Theatre is a step in the right direction.

“Because we tour on a regular basis nationally and internationally, having a space that becomes defined with the company and becomes the home of dance in Adelaide is important so audiences start to engage with us and with the art form more regularly,” Comerford says.

“If you look at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, they present far more regularly than we do. State Theatre Company has far more regular seasons, whereas dance works are quite big to create – you’re building something from scratch, you’re not working off a pre-existing script or score.

“We can’t present that many times, but having this space means that we can have people here on a more regular basis just to build that engagement with the community.”

When the Australian Dance Theatre is not using the theatre, it will be rented out to other local arts companies. ADT also plans to hold open rehearsals and public dance classes.

“The Odeon will be activated in a way that it hasn’t been activated for some time,” Comerford says.

“It will become not only a hub for dance in South Australia, but also a destination for economic activity and arts along the Parade.”

Next on the horizon for the ADT is its inaugural Adelaide Dance Festival in July, which is planned to coincide with the international Joint Dance Congress being held in Adelaide this year.

We see a massive potential over the next few years to really grow a strong base for dance here in Adelaide

As part of the festival, the company will present its new season of The Beginning of Nature, dancer and choreographer Lina Limosani will perform her show The Spinners and the Australian Ballet will also be in town.

“For the first time the Festival Centre will have all three of its venues – Festival Theatre, [Dunstan] Playhouse and Space [Theatre] – having dance on, which is just a great moment for dance in South Australia,” Comerford says.

Stewart says the two-week festival will “open up a much wider discourse of what is dance”, and will feature performances at venues in the city’s west end as well as at the Odeon Theatre.

“We’re hopeful that this festival will build into a regular event, a biennial event,” he says.

“Over time it will expand into a festival that features interstate and international artists, as well as the best of South Australia.”

Comerford says luring more interstate dance companies to South Australia will be a focus for the future.

“The dance that has been programmed in the last few years in the Adelaide Festival and even through WOMADelaide is selling really well,” he says.

“There is an audience there but we don’t have dance presented regularly enough. Hopefully with this new festival and this new theatre space this will change.

“We see a massive potential over the next few years to really grow a strong base for dance here in Adelaide.”

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