When Michelle Ryan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she thought her dance career was over – it instead led her to a richer understanding of what dance could be. By Jana Perković.

Choreographer Michelle Ryan

Black & white image of a woman sitting in a wheelchair, smiling with her arm raised.
Choreographer Michelle Ryan.
Credit: Maxx Corkindale

Michelle Ryan lost both her parents during the pandemic. First her father, then her mother. She doesn’t have children and, even though she has older brothers, she says the loss of both parents was “devastating – I lost my family”. She found solace in returning to the studio with Restless Dance Theatre, the company she leads. “We had our ‘company bubble’, so we were able to come in and work, while socially distancing. It was about staying physical, but also making sure everyone in the company felt connected and supported.”

She describes the support she felt from the dancers. “They offered complete love without saying anything. I realised then that Restless was my family.”

Her experiences of loss inform a new work, Exposed, which is touring nationally and plays at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 to September 3. Ryan’s starting point was seeing her parents age, passing from strong and vibrant people to needing help as they approached their end of life. “But at what point do you ask for help? There is a difficulty in this, for people who had been self-sufficient all their lives.” Ryan also reflected on her unease with the mistrust she felt prevail in Australia during the pandemic. “I didn’t like that people weren’t trusting each other outside of their bubble,” she says. “We wanted to get away. But then, later on, how do we find our community again?”

She creates work, she says, by finding “her task”. “I started with the question of vulnerability and strength. I asked my dancers: when do you feel unsafe? How do you find your inner strength? Someone said, I feel unsafe when someone is behind me. They all came up with different movements, created whole scenes. I then meld that together.”

Since 2013, Adelaide-based Restless Dance Theatre has gone from strength to strength under Ryan’s artistic direction. She is a former dancer with Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), an inspiring speaker and leader in the arts and an accomplished choreographer. Ryan is also a wheelchair user.

Before 2001, Ryan was an elite dancer. Hired by Tankard almost straight out of university, she became part of one of the most critically acclaimed Australian dance companies of all time.

Tankard herself was a principal artist in Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. A German inkeeper’s daughter who studied at The Juilliard School in New York, Bausch imbued modern ballet with expressionist sensibility. Bausch’s signature method involved working closely with dancers to create physical material: asking questions, eliciting body memories, improvising, then sifting and sorting to create movement sequences with great emotional resonance. Tankard was pivotal in creating some of Bausch’s most celebrated works, such as Café Müller, Kontakthof and Walzer. She returned to Australia about 1984 and in 1989 was given the opportunity to run her own company. Michelle Ryan, then in her early 20s, joined Tankard’s first Australian ensemble.

Tankard’s stewardship of the ADT brought Bausch’s “dance theatre” to Australia. Here, the wild and expressive visual language of Tanztheater met the exuberant physicality of Australian dance. The result was amplifying, exhilarating. Ryan remembers joking with a friend that the only two things she didn’t want to do were singing and nudity. She had to do both in her very first two years – including singing three-part harmony in Bulgarian. The dancers Tankard assembled in that first ensemble would go on to define the next generation of Australian contemporary dance: Shaun Parker, Prue Lang, Vincent Crowley, Gavin Webber. And of course, Ryan.

Working together every day, the dancers became like a family. “We were growing up together,” says Ryan in the documentary Michelle’s Story. “I sometimes wish I had realised how special and how important those times…” Her voice breaks.

In 2000 Ryan relocated to Europe, following Gavin Webber, her partner at the time. She was 30, in love, at the peak of her career. Life can’t get much better than this, she thought. Mere months later, she was diagnosed with an incurable illness.

“I was in Brussels at the time,” she tells me. “I couldn’t feel my calf muscles and, when I put my head down, my fingers would tingle. That led me to the physio, and I ended up in the hospital in Berlin, having a lumbar puncture.

“They wanted to know that I had travel insurance. They said: ‘If your insurance doesn’t pay, then you have to pay. So, do you want the top specialist, or the student?’ Knowing that if they got it wrong, I could be paralysed from the waist down,” she adds, her tone somewhere between unflinching wryness and soft humour. “So I said, ‘Let’s go with the middle of the range’.”

This was December. By March she was told: “very probable MS”. “Getting that diagnosis straight up was harsh. I thought I had a pinched nerve.” She stopped dancing that day. “I felt very much like my body had betrayed me. I had taken such good care of my body: I wasn’t into drugs, I wasn’t into, you know, smoking. I hadn’t been naughty. And yet.”

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease. The body attacks the protective myelin coating of the nerve fibres, causing signals to be lost between the brain and the rest of the body. It is unpredictable: some people are only mildly affected, others rapidly lose the ability to see clearly, write, speak or walk. There is no known cure.

Ryan was fine for a year. Then, over the course of six months, her health rapidly deteriorated. She needed first a walking stick, then a wheelchair. She was stabilised in the hospital. Five weeks later, she had to walk down the aisle in front of her family and friends to get married to Webber. She had only just relearnt to walk. The footage of their wedding shows Ryan, held by her father, making small, wobbly steps towards Webber. She is beaming, casting warm smiles to their friends and family. But the camera catches the frozen expressions on everyone’s faces. Compared to the muscular, vibrant woman who could carry her fiancé in her arms, Ryan is now a frail shadow.

Being a top professional dancer requires the combined effort of an elite sportsperson and a classical musician: daily rehearsals, keeping in peak physical condition, an unwavering dedication to one’s craft. It doesn’t leave much free time. Take this all-encompassing effort away – and what is left? “I went behind the scenes,” says Ryan. “I didn’t want anyone to see me and I didn’t want to be seen. I didn’t fit that perfect image anymore.” Ryan had been one of those lucky artists who had worked professionally her whole life. “I had been dancing since I was five or six. I lost my identity, and my career, in that one day.”

I cannot find the words to ask her about it, but the years that followed could only have been incredibly tough. Her marriage with Webber eventually broke down. She left Dancenorth, the dance company the couple ran together, and got an office job.

A chance email in 2011 from Belgian choreographer Alain Platel turned her life around. Platel invited her to do a guest performance for the Australian leg of the tour of his dance work Out of Context – For Pina, a dedication to Bausch, who died in 2009. It would be Ryan’s first stage performance in 10 years.

The encounter was life-changing. “Before the show, he spoke to me: ‘You look very worried. What’s wrong?’ I said: ‘I’m worried I’m going to fall over.’ Because I had a walking stick, you know. He said to me: ‘Well, wouldn’t you just get up again and keep going?’ It was a light bulb moment. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I had been worrying for all those years that I would fall over. I thought, If he isn’t worried, why should I be?

On that stage, Ryan performed an “arms solo” of Tankard’s and improvised movement. “I closed my eyes, and I felt my soul soar.” Platel later told Ryan that seeing her perform was the first time that his own work felt real for him.

Ryan tells me that afterwards, Platel was very complimentary, but he also challenged her. “He asked: ‘Why don’t you dance?’ I replied: ‘There is nowhere for me to dance in Australia. Why would anyone want to come and see me?’ And he said: ‘Well, 400 people in the Brisbane Powerhouse just did.’ And I went: ‘Oh. Okay. Fair enough.’ ”

It was another aha moment for Ryan. It coincided with the directorship of Restless Dance Theatre becoming available. “I had been working in the disability sector. I thought, This is the perfect place for me.

Ryan moved back to Adelaide to run the small community dance company, which worked with people with and without disabilities. She thought it would be for a few years. She has now been there for more than a decade. “I’ve worked really closely with fabulous people to make the company into what it is today, and I still see an amazing trajectory for our artists,” Ryan tells me.

Arriving in Adelaide, Ryan encountered a company that produced one show a year through a workshop program: “The dancers came in once a week for two hours.” She embarked on professionalising Restless. She brought in collaborators who shared her language, ADT dancers Sarah-Jayne Howard, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan, and Tankard’s producer Roz Hervey. In 2017, they implemented a three-days-a-week training program and created a steady ensemble, paid at professional rates. Their skill level soared.

“When I came to the company, I was told all these things that our dancers couldn’t do, but I just treated them like I would any other dancer,” she says. “We had high expectations and they kept rising to the bar. Now it’s their job. The dancers identify as artists and take pride in their craft. I feel it’s given them an importance – with their families, and with the public – a sense of value, that they may not have felt before.”

I first heard Ryan speak in 2015 and was struck by the passionate clarity with which she insisted we should see disability not on a hierarchy of ability, but on a spectrum of human difference. It struck me as a worldview that held transformative and liberating potential, that allowed us to see value and worth in our diversity. It was a radical and courageous proposal back then, before #MeToo, marriage equality, trans rights and decolonisation had entered the conversation in Australia. Now it seems a worldview that comes directly out of her arts lineage, marked by a small German woman who once said she was less interested in moving her dancers than in knowing what moves them.

“Yes, Pina was a leader, bringing truth and honesty and authenticity to dance.” Ryan thinks for a moment. “There is beauty in difference, and there is beauty in vulnerability. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable and express yourself, it is much more powerful than the technical brilliance of someone whacking their leg around. I love working with our dancers. They have a different way of thinking. Using the same processes that Meryl did, and Pina did, asking the same kind of questions, I get really interesting responses I never would have thought of.

“For me, it’s all about my dancers’ personalities and making those personalities shine. It gives them pride, but it also gives them their representation on stage, as human beings. I think Pina and Meryl did that really well. And, you know, I would hope that I’m doing that here at Restless.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Powerful truths".

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