A conversation about movement and personal history, with dancer Diane Busuttil. By Kate Holden.

Choreographer Diane Busuttil

Movement is my first language, she says, and nimbly she tap dances across the floor, feet quick and sure; she shimmies to one side, the other, her limbs jogging so loose and deft under flowing black clothes. This woman has been moving like this for years: her body is her instrument, it’s strong and good and it springs like glee.

She has a dancer’s face too, under gamine cropped curly hair: wide mouth, brown elfin eyes, lines around her mouth. She’s beautiful. Strong neck. A total spunk. There’s a spry, alert strength here. Someone who laughs in bars, who rides a classy bike. Recently she performed in a Melbourne dance production of the Kama Sutra, masked, reverse-gendered, slow motion. Well, you’re not surprised she lived for years in Berlin.

She’s in shadow on the Skype screen today, light catching the side of her face. Not an exhibitionist in her personal life, but Diane Busuttil uses her naked body in work: in Poland, to protest an ultra-orthodox Christian desecration of an arts festival, she had herself and other dancers smeared in paint “blood”, tenderly wiping it on each other and joyfully leaping, arms raised, in a circle; then ran the film backwards so that Moral Cleanse begins with pagan ecstasy and slowly washes them back to solemn nudity.

“I was raised Catholic,” she says, “so I know what they hate: female power; blood.” Another of Busuttil’s short films, Fresh Fruit, has her character, a Sicilian hotel housekeeper, make love with a sleepy female guest, their warm bodies tumbled with shining, decadent slices of wet fruit: a speechless, sheet-tangled garden of Eden. Dirt and Desire is a strange tale of potatoes, sex, dinner and death. And in Super Power she shows only her face, backed against a wall, talking agitatedly, furiously, but mute as an electro-punk track thrashes over the top.

What is that woman saying so urgently? “I think a lot of us have had experiences that may have broken us into pieces,” Busuttil says, “but somehow we’ve managed to survive. With some people you know about it. With some people you don’t. It’s like a secret power.” She enjoyed practising it through theatre. “I think when you’re on stage you’re very present and you’re you, but you also have the freedom to embellish your personality and be angrier, be stronger, be softer; be all these amazing things. You can play around with who you are.” With every film she’s made she’s tried to improve the weaknesses of the earlier ones. “So then I thought, what do I really want to say? I thought I’d make a film where I could be more passionate and maybe a bit more vulnerable than what I’d done previously. It was also scary to be so personal, in a way. But I’m really glad that I did it.”

She was 17 days in the hospital after birth, unnamed, until her adoptive parents came to choose her. “I imagine I must have been looking sweet and quiet for that moment. They thought, ‘Oh, she looks lovely.’ And then they took me home and realised just how loud I am.” If she’d been crying, that day, or spotty, or smelly; if she hadn’t had Italian heritage to be matched with a prospective Maltese parent; it could have been worse, but even so, she never felt she fitted. “I didn’t know what it was or why it was. I didn’t feel I could fit. I felt I should have been … somewhere else.” At eight she discovered she was adopted. Ten years later her unknown mother died in an accident. It was only decades later that Busuttil realised her 17-year-old mother, sedated, shamed and misinformed, had sensed no choice. “So I did kind of soften my anger then. It was really burning inside me for a long time, that story – people can just flow off their tongue, who their parents are, and that simple thing, I still can’t – I don’t know who my birth father is.”

Her adoptive father, before he sent her to dance classes, was unnerved by the loudness, the constant energy of this dark-eyed child. “He had a totally different expectation of who I should have been. I think he still has that today. I can’t be anyone but who I am, really. So I cultivated my own family.” She went to Berlin on a scholarship, found a community of dance artists. As she observes: “You adopt your own people throughout life.” She’s only recently returned to Sydney, to care for her father. But she brought an idea, impossible without the experience and confidence of Europe.

Thus her film Without Consent, a long visual of a country road unspooling before a windscreen, a journey accompanied by Busuttil simply recounting the story of her adoption. Her voice, still Australian and girlish after the years in Europe, is candid, vulnerable. The story is unassuming, agonising. She hopes telling it will encourage and support others involved in forced adoption.

“That’s a nice power in art, if you can write or paint or dance, something that’s personal but also maybe healing. It’s a gift to others. Hopefully it makes them want to get up and do it as well.” She hoped, too, that her family would want to see it. They weren’t interested. But her parents bought her a pendant as a baby that said, You’re not our flesh and blood but we love you just the same. “Oh, I was definitely loved.” She goes on, “I can’t explain it; there’s something mystical, that need to know. I needed to know where I came from.”

There is no sure end to the film, to the road she travelled; quick and sure her feet have spun her across the globe. But between each step there is always the leap: lovely, risky air.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 23, 2018 as "Leaps of fate".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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