A poignant portrait of dancer and choreographer Tanja Liedtke highlights the legacy of a creative life cut short, writes PHILIPPA HAWKER.
A story of grief and exhilaration, achievement and loss, Life in Movement, which screens at the Sydney Film Festival today, is also a vivid, moving portrait of an artist and an absence.
It’s a documentary about the late dancer and choreographer Tanja Liedtke, who died in 2007 at the age of 29, shortly before she was due to take up a much-heralded appointment as director of the Sydney Dance Company. It is made by filmmakers Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde, who were close friends of Liedtke’s.
One of the elements that makes the film so striking is the presence of Liedtke herself. She used a video camera constantly as a creative tool and the film is full of footage of her, of images with a sense of drama, playfulness and clarity and sometimes a darker edge.
She uses her own body to explore and flesh out ideas. There’s an exuberant, long-limbed figure winding seductively to and fro in front of a bathroom cabinet; a fraught woman slapping herself in the face, over and over, saying ”pull yourself together”. There’s some strange, unsettling footage of Liedtke in a hotel room, with a bag on her head, exploring the torment of a figure struggling with ”baggage” and identity.
Life in Movement brings out the links between these almost compulsive explorations of the self and the body and her work – what Mason calls ”these beautiful lines of development”. It goes back as far as footage of her at boarding school, a lanky girl with braces emerging from a hiding place in a locker: years later, this image is echoed by a moment from her first full-length work,Twelfth Floor.
Liedtke was born in Stuttgart, spent her early childhood in Spain, then studied ballet at the Elmhurst boarding school and the Rambert School in England, before coming to Australia.
She was a gifted, striking dancer with Australian Dance Theatre and DV8 Physical Theatre in London but her choreographic intentions and ambitions were soon clear.
Mason recalls seeing Twelfth Floor for the first time. It is a piece in which five dancers explore, with wit and poignancy, the pains and challenges of living together, struggling against confinement.
”I don’t really know dance or the dance world but dance I had seen in the past had seemed very abstract to me, I didn’t really have a connection point,” Mason says. ”But in Twelfth Floorthere were loads of connections and I was thrilled by that.”
In the documentary he says, ”We were interested in unpicking what that meant, in finding out how you make work that connects.” As a close friend of Liedtke and her partner and creative collaborator, Sol Ulbrich, Mason says he was ”like many people, shocked by her death”. Her appointment at SDC, succeeding Graeme Murphy, who had been artistic director for 31 years, had seemed to symbolise the arrival of a new generation.
To Mason, the media coverage of Liedtke’s death often focused on unfulfilled promise and on the implication that ”we’ll never know whether she would have been good. I felt it was a reductive way of looking at it. They didn’t give her that job because she might have been good but because she was already making very interesting work.”
For him, one of the ideas that underpinned the film was a wish to ”change the balance, to show the artist that she was”.
Hyde says she, on the other hand, was caught up in the thought of what might have been. She was also interested, she says, in ”what happens to the people grieving because of this person”. Yet in the end, she adds, they both became interested in each other’s perspective.
Part of the documentary follows a small group of Liedtke’s friends and colleagues, including Ulbrich, in the aftermath of her death, as they take her work on tour around the world.
Life in Movement is a film about an individual but it’s also about the strength of a creative partnership and the complex dynamics of people working together. There is an evident sense of great commitment but also of bewilderment; there are times when they feel the need of her energy and certainty and struggle with her absence.
Mason and Hyde spoke to Liedtke’s parents and brothers and to figures in the dance world who knew and worked with her, such as DV8’s Lloyd Newson and Garry Stewart of Australian Dance Theatre.
The interviews, Mason says, were challenging at times. But they were, Hyde adds, ”incredibly enjoyable too”, as people explored, with candour and directness, their experience of Liedtke, bringing out different, sometimes contradictory, aspects of who she was and what she meant to them. The structuring of the film, in the midst of so many eloquent recollections, Mason says, ”was also informed by Tanja and her work was about the language of the body, of theatre, of dance. So we tried to strip out the words, where we could.”
The film is not definitive about the circumstances of her death. Liedtke died when she was hit by a garbage truck in Crows Nest in the early hours of the morning on August 17, 2007.
She had been stressed and anxious about starting work at SDC and the challenges of the task and she was finding it difficult to sleep. It was raining and she wasn’t wearing her glasses.
Mason went to the coroner’s office and read the police reports and at one point, he says, there was a part of the film that ”wasn’t forensic exactly but went into more detail about what happened on the night of her death”. But in the end, that wasn’t the film they wanted to make.
No one knows, they both say, exactly what happened. ”But I don’t think she would have been there if she wasn’t under huge pressure,” Mason says.
As always with Liedtke, he adds, she had chosen to tackle stress in a positive way: she wouldn’t lie awake tossing and turning, she would do something physical, she would move, she would go for a walk. To Hyde, there are two things that emerge strongly about Liedtke when people talk about her.
”When you are working and you know you’re not doing your best, you think, Tanja would be doing this better, harder, faster. And it pushes you that little bit, to go deeper.
”The other is the opposite end of the scale: perspective. We were making a film about a person who was so far into her work, to a point of distraction – and we were doing the same thing. We’d have to tell ourselves, ‘Slow down, pull out, take a broader look.”’
To Mason, thinking about what Liedtke created, he says, ”there is so much in these works and it’s almost a call to arms, if you’re going to make something, make it – put that much energy and that much meaning into it.”
The Sydney Film Festival screening of Life in Movement has sold out. It will also screen as part of the Sydney Opera House Spring Dance Festival, August 23-September 4.