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‘He changed the landscape’: Garry Stewart’s swan song arrives for Australian Dance Theater

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“I had this very palpable sense of fate that, for some reason, I knew I was going to get the job.”

This is how dance choreographer Garry Stewart felt in 1999 after a job interview with the national group Australian Dance Theater (ADT).

Twenty-two years later, with 25 works with the troupe to his credit and having turned contemporary dance upside down, he opens his last ADT show on Thursday evening, soberly titled G, in Adelaide.

“Maybe everyone who applies for a job believes they’re going to get it, but for some reason I had that very strong belief,” said Stewart.

Its name has since become synonymous with contemporary dance theater, with a string of hits broadcast to Australia and around the world from ADT’s base in Adelaide.

These include The Age of Unbeauty (2002), Devolution (2006), G (2008), Be Your Self (2010), Proximity (2012), the Beginning of Nature (2018) and Stewart’s first feature film ADT, Birdbrain, which rocked the boat as soon as it was released in 2000.

G is playing in Adelaide as Garry Stewart’s last show with ADT.(Provided: Ashley De Prazer / ADT)

Birdbrain opens doors

Using contemporary dance, breakdancing, yoga, gymnastics, video art, and electronic music, Birdbrain was a dismantling of the narrative behind the classic Swan Lake.

Dancing in white shirt either standing or lying on a black stage
Birdbrain premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 2000, before touring around the world to critical acclaim.(Provided: Alex Makayev / ADT )

“I was very lucky because it was my first job for the company and we played it well over 200 times on a number of continents so it was great for the company to have this success very early on, ”said Stewart.

“It opened up a lot of doors and it was really interesting.”

Considering this to be a highlight of his career, he said the creative process behind Birdbrain “felt like vomit”.

“It was like the result of a whole range of intuitive feelings about dancing that had been developing in me for quite some time,” said Stewart.

“And when he landed it was really interesting.”

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Robotics innovation

Another highlight was Devolution, a 2006 collaboration with Canadian roboticist Louise-Philippe Demers.

“It was probably one of the biggest dance productions of its kind at the time in the world,” said Stewart.

“It was an epic project, with 30 robotic machines on stage and prosthetics on the dancers’ bodies.”

He also won two Helpmann Awards for Stewart and Demers, an SA Ruby Award for Innovation and one of the many Australian Dance Awards and Green Room Awards that Garry Stewart and the ADT would ultimately win under his tenure.

After receiving a Centenary Award from the Australian Government for service to the arts in 2001, Stewart also received the inaugural Australia Council Award 2015 for outstanding achievement in dance.

Dancers with prosthetic and mechanical attachments on a stage.
Garry Stewart collaborated with Canadian roboticist Louise-Philippe Demers in 2006 for Devolution.(Provided: Georg Meyer Weil via ADT )

From the beginnings of Sydney

Prior to his tenure at ADT, Stewart lived in his hometown of Sydney where he choreographed as a freelance.

Having retired as a professional dancer in the late 1980s, he made the decision to continue choreography during a trip to Madrid in 1990.

“I had a taste for acting, but I also had more plans to be a choreographer, so I came back and pursued that,” said Stewart.

A man watches over three dancers
Garry Stewart’s choreography inspired the dancers to push their limits.(Provided: ADT)

In 1995 he was invited to create a double program with another Australian choreographer, Gideon Obarzanek, which led to the launch of Chunky Move, a very successful dance company based in Victoria.

He also started a small, project-based business called Thwack! in 1998

Meanwhile, ADT had built its international reputation under the artistic direction of Meryl Tankard with innovative shows like Furiosa and Aurora.

After Tankard’s retirement in 1999, Stewart successfully applied to take over and became the longest-serving artistic director in the company’s history, with 19 stage works and six films and videos to his credit.

“Twenty-two years is extraordinary, for any organization, and it is probably a testament to the few artistic director positions in the country,” said Stewart.

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Giving a part of yourself

Stewart said each work was like creating a part of yourself which is then given to the world, only to inspire another part of you that “wants to speak and come into the world.”

“But no work really fills that total picture of yourself or who you are as an artist,” he said.

“It’s really a body of work that will do that, a kind of discourse between a whole range of works that can say something about an artist.”

The facade of a Supernature advertising theater
Supernature premiered in March as Garry Stewart’s final original work for the Australian Dance Theater.(Provided: Paul Doherty)

To celebrate 20 years with ADT, in 2019 the company produced Anthology, a program filled with highlights from Stewart’s six most successful shows.

Since 2020 and the start of COVID-19 restrictions, however, the company has operated very differently, postponing its touring schedule and presenting its shows only to South Australian audiences.

These include Supernature, Stewart’s latest original work, which premiered at the renovated Her Majesty’s Theater in March 2021.

“The advantage is that we did a lot in Adelaide,” he said.

“I was very lucky as an artist to work in Adelaide during the pandemic where we were able to perform all year round.”

A man reaches out as background mirrors show dancers rehearsing
Garry Stewart at the 2016 Objeckt rehearsals, which ADT presented in Adelaide this year. (Provided: ADT)

The final act

Stewart has spent much of the past two years as a professor of creative arts at Flinders University, and his work with ADT has been studied as part of dance programs in schools and universities.

“It’s humbling and rewarding to know that what I have done has really changed and made a contribution to the cultural landscape in Australia and that my time with the company has really meant something,” he said.

For its final act, ADT performs G at Her Majesty’s Theater in Adelaide, a 2008 production that takes a similar approach to Birdbrain by dismantling a classical ballet, Giselle.

He has no plans to stop creating after stepping down from new art director Daniel Riley, who will take the reins from January 1.

“I’m looking forward to kind of opening up my own practices as an artist working in opera, film, creating large site specific projects and working a bit more nationally and internationally,” said Stewart.

A woman in green on a stage lifts her red hair
Like Birdbrain before him, G also referred to an iconic ballet, Giselle.(Provided: Ashley De Prazer / ADT)

He will be missed at ADT however, with Associate Artistic Director Sarah-Jayne Howard – who has worked with Stewart since his pre-ADT days – describing him as “the most tenacious person I know.”

She said her impact had simply “changed the entire dance landscape everywhere” with a “crazy, physical and radical vocabulary”.

“We went around the world and people hadn’t seen anything like it.”

G is on view at Her Majesty’s Theater until November 29.


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