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Choreographer Garry Stewart’s new work Supernature opens at the Adelaide Festival next month, marking his final year as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. By Anthony Nocera.

Choreographer Garry Stewart

Australian Dance Theatre’s Supernature.
Credit: Sam Roberts

“Banana bread,” Garry Stewart says as he steps into the foyer to greet me. He’s holding a small, white, waxy paper bag. 

Curiously, I ask: “Banana bread?”

“When I’m choreographing, I drink too much coffee, I don’t sleep, and I get a sore stomach,” he says, before taking another bite and leading me to his office. “Banana bread seems to settle it.”

He’s stepped out of rehearsals for his latest work, Supernature. Premiering at the 2021 Adelaide Festival, this piece feels heavy with expectation: it marks one of his final works as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), a position he is stepping down from after 22 years.

Since he took over the company in 1999, Stewart’s tenure at ADT has been marked by tireless innovation and growth, leading to widespread national and international acclaim. His first work for the company, Housedance, saw his dancers perform on the western sails of the Sydney Opera House for the millennium broadcast. This was followed by the landmark Birdbrain, a deconstruction of Swan Lake that has become one of the most performed works in the history of Australian contemporary dance, touring Australia and throughout the United States, Britain, Europe and Asia.

Stewart says his need to build, question and create sustained him through his tenure.

“I’ve been thinking about leaving ADT for a while, but there’s always another idea, another project that I want to see through,” he says. “You don’t have any control over being an artist. You either are one or you aren’t. The desire to be an artist is something you’re born with and it yanks you into whatever field it compels you to. That’s certainly what it’s been like for me. I was a working-class kid from the country and I first saw dance when I was 18 and it blew my mind and then, accordingly, I had to drop everything and pursue that at a late age.”

Stewart went on to a storied career in the arts. He danced with some of Australia’s most respected companies, including Expressions Dance Company (now Australasian Dance Collective), the Queensland Ballet and ADT itself, before shifting to choreography in the 1990s. After creating work for the likes of Chunky Move and Sydney Dance Company, he formed his own project-based company, Thwack!, to give himself space to create the work that interested him most.

Plastic Space (1999), created for Melbourne Festival, was very much a blueprint for the work he would go on to create at ADT, and blended classical technique with breakdance and cutting-edge technology (in this instance, large-scale video elements). Reflecting on Stewart’s work at ADT, dance critic Michelle Potter noted three major preoccupations in his work: “physical virtuosity, thematic abstraction and technology as a choreographic tool”.

These are hallmarks of Stewart’s work at ADT, which has been characterised by his ability to pre-empt ideas before they enter the public consciousness, often through cross-disciplinary collaboration with artists, engineers and technologists from across the globe. Stewart has developed an uncanny vision, pushing his dancers, his artists and his audiences into the future.

2014’s Multiverse, created while he was thinker-in-residence at Deakin University and co-commissioned by La Rose des Vents, Villeneuve-d’Ascq (France), Theater im Pfalzbau, Ludwigshafen (Germany) and Théâtre National de Chaillot, Paris, had dancers interacting with high-definition 3D animations live on stage, preceding the mainstreaming of augmented reality by a number of years. The work, made in consultation with theoretical physicists and game designers, was one of the first of its kind to be created by an Australian company.

In 2000 he was working on Mind Game, a multiplatform work that was intended to include, according to an interview with RealTime Arts Magazine, “an online delivery, a digital broadcast, a separate film that’s a composite of the film within those works and perhaps a CD-ROM”.

Although the work never eventuated, creating an almost pandemic-proof work that could be experienced and enjoyed in a number of formats feels like a distinctly 2021 proposition. For the record, Stewart was sceptical about CD-ROMs even then: “I wonder about the future of CD-ROM,” he said at the time. “It hasn’t really taken off.”

Stewart holds no illusions about the fact that his work has been transformed by his position at ADT, which gave him not only the space for grand or complex ideas, but also the resources to allow them to materialise.

“At ADT I’ve been entrusted with a situation where I can make the work that I want … freely,” he says. “Where I’m permitted to imagine and hallucinate, to dream, to question and to bring other people into that. It’s incredibly rare.”

Stewart established the International Centre for Choreography (ICC) in 2018 – a hub for independent choreographers to research and experiment – that sits at the heart of ADT, giving them access to the company’s resources and dancers. It was created as a result of a Churchill Fellowship, for which he conducted a comparative study of choreographic centres across Europe, America and India. The research reaffirmed his position that spaces for “discourse, discussion, contemplation and reflection” were essential to the creation of modern contemporary dance.

“The ICC is designed to give artists time to question and explore the body with a company of dancers [and] is crucial to the creation of new work,” says Stewart. “To have made a space for that in South Australia and at ADT is something I’m really proud of.”

While the ICC will continue at ADT after his departure, Stewart will also incubate new cross-disciplinary projects as the director of Flinders University’s Assemblage Centre for Creative Arts, which works with students, artists and academics to plot new creative futures for audiences and the industry at large.

“The position at Flinders is a fantastic opportunity for me to keep working with artists, students and researchers on interdisciplinary creative projects. Every week I get to meet the most extraordinary thinkers and these wonderful artists who are so open to new ideas … it’s very inspiring.”

Supernature feels like a fitting end to Stewart’s tenure. As the final work in The Nature Series, a lauded collection of creative actions exploring humanity’s relationship to nature, it’s the culmination of a career spent combining the ideas of scientists and futurists with his own choreographic research and post-structuralist point of view. The series, which includes Habitus (2016), the Helpmann Award-winning The Beginning of Nature (2018), North/South (2019), created with Norwegian choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen, and the multi-award-winning film The Circadian Cycle (2019), is indicative of the complexity and scale of the ideas that drive his work.

“Making work in a series allows the artist to look at an idea from a number of perspectives and to delve deeply into an area of knowledge and an area of conceptual concerns, because you can’t say everything in one work,” says Stewart. “So making a work in a series allows me to look at issues pertaining to nature from multiple viewpoints over time.”

Supernature seeks to reimagine our relationship to the world around us through the depiction of a post-Anthropocene society where the human body lives symbiotically with the natural world. The work draws from his 2006 work Devolution – a collaboration with French Canadian roboticist Louis-Philippe Demers – which saw him turn his dancers into cyborgs using prosthetics and 30 robotic machines to create a complex portrait of our emerging relationship and dependence on technology.

Devolution was looking at ecosystems or processes through the confluence or collision of two operating systems: one being robotic exoskeletons and the other being the human body. I had conversations with a biologist where we were looking at ecosystem processes like parasitism, mutualism, territoriality, dying... It was like the stage was a closed, encapsulated synthesised ecosystem.”

In Supernature, Stewart takes this a step further: “The body isn’t separate from nature and we don’t stand atop nature – we are down in the mud,” he says. “We are of the earth.”

The work is informed by scholar Donna Haraway, in particular her concept of the Chthulucene, where she imagines a future for the human race that exists in harmony with nature, deconstructing dominant notions of bodily identity.

“Haraway is touching on this idea that humans need to relocate themselves in the dirt, the compost… the Earth. She calls the human body a ‘holobiont’, in that we are a walking, talking ecosystem,” says Stewart. “We have billions of bacteria in our body, as well as parasites. And they’re not just there to take advantage of us. They need us and we need them.”

In a time of face masks, separation and fastidious hygiene in response to the pandemic, Stewart’s highlighting of the porousness of the human body feels prescient. But Supernature isn’t a work designed to meditate on Covid-19; it rather aims to make audiences rethink their relationship to nature.

“Nature is amoral, nature only has necessities. Nature doesn’t have a point of view that is good or bad,” he says. “In Supernature, I’m not trying to paint a nihilistic picture of our relationship to nature. I’m more interested in trying to restore a sense of awe and wonder about our relationship to nature, a humility towards it and, perhaps, a reverence for it.

“When making this work, I’ve been thinking about the Vitruvian Man,” he continues. “The fit, white, heterosexual male as the symbol of the human … that’s a myth. The human is not actually an absolute, it’s not a totalised separate entity from other species. A lot of my work, I think, has been about liberating us from this understanding of the body. About imagining a different future.”

Just as Supernature has led him to imagine new ways forward, his upcoming departure from ADT has led him to think about how the company will transform without him.

“I don’t envisage anything in particular for ADT, I don’t think that’s my role. There should be someone that … maybe has been looking at my work and thinks, ‘Well, that was interesting once but now I really hate what that person is making’ or ‘I see huge faults in the work, and I think I can do better.’

“I know when I started with the company, I had a preconceived notion of what the artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre was supposed to look like, based on its history, and I felt a little uncomfortable with that. And I thought, ‘Oh gosh, am I in the right place?’ And then I realised very quickly that the AD of this company is whatever you make it. It’s absolutely necessary for whatever person comes next to own it and make their own choices and to create their own culture in this company.”

When asked about applying his vision to his own future – about what’s next for an artist who has been so concerned with imagining futures for the rest of us – he’s certain that he’ll be busy. Stewart plans to keep working, choreographing and creating. “I’m indelibly printed with the identity of an artist and I feel as creative and energetic as ever,” he says. “I want to keep exploring new forms and ways of making.

“I’ve always had a certain tenacity. It’s been an internal drive that’s not necessarily in my field of understanding. I have blue eyes, I have brown hair and I have to choreograph. I think that’s what’s led to 22 years with ADT. My desire to keep making and creating.”

As we wrap up the interview and say our goodbyes, I notice he’s left a piece of banana bread in the bag, and ask if his stomach is feeling better.

“A bit,” he says with a smile. “For now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "The nature of dance".

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Anthony Nocera is a writer from Adelaide.