Monday, April 9, 2012


I can't dance to save my life. Once upon a time, as a protest, when everyone else hit the floor I'd do this one legged jig, just lift my foot off the floor a little and swing it around. It was funny the first time.

While the art of dance eludes me I do admire anyone who is able to speak through it. Still, when a friend of mine pressed tickets for a docco about a choreographer I hmmed and haahed. Then she sent me to the page and I said I'd see her at the Nova.

Tanja Liedtke was only twenty-nine when she won the top spot at the Sydney Dance Company, succeeding living legend Graeme Murphy who had reigned o'er the SDC from 1976 as a kind of nimble Czar. You could call that history making. Liedtke was about self expression from the word go. When this urge took wing as the choice to use movement she launched and took off: dance and theatre studies in Madrid, ballet school in London, touring with the Australian Dance Theatre, productions for Channel 4 in Britain, fellowships, awards, notice, praise and finally, Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company before she hit thirty. Can you say GO? Then she was run over by a garbage truck and was no more. STOP! You couldn't write that as fiction (unless you were Samuel Beckett). STOP! A great lightless void where there had been a dynamic and seemingly unstoppable force.

We see that force in a processed image of Liedtke executing one of her complex moves in what looks like an old magic lantern image. The body is twisted copied several times across the screen. Beneath it a nocturnal landscape speeds by. Then we're in the movie.

The film is built of a small number of blocks that begin looking like something quite quickly which becomes the story of the piece. One is Liedtke's video record; private sketches and tests on home video, video from school days. Another is the cast she left behind when she died, reconstructing the show they were working on in a delicately balanced mutual direction. Then there are the documents; news footage, stage videos, everything that testifies to the truth of the story. Finally, there is testimony; her family, colleagues and friends between them build a portrait of her life, career, psyche and creativity.

Touchingly, it is this last element that provides the most sag in this portrait. Not because the interviews are unconvincing but because the intrigue created by everything else, the rush of impressions, seems to say much more about Liedtke than the shared memories of her nearest and dearest. I'm going to consider this a compliment to the film as the craft involved in the scrapbook of stills and moving images is impressive, especially images of Liedtke herself almost frighteningly intense as she jams on a gesture, channels something strange and shrill as a schoolgirl or in one extraordinary sequence in close up when she repeatedly slaps herself, hisses "pull yourself together", and twists her face into solid panic.

Thing is we do need the talking heads. We need the gaps filled in the timeline and the other ones left by those intimate videos. The dual themes of this biography are right there: intimacy and creativity. Liedtke was on with a  high voltage charge in creative mode and sweet, quiet and personable when the switch was flipped.

But there's a problem with these interviews and it has to do with the decision made by the filmmakers to remove the coverage of the accident that killed her. What we get visually, instead of this, is pretty good. A series of tyre-level tracks around the streets of inner city Sydney in the very early morning (when it happened) accompanied by a series of memories of how her intimates found out about her death. On the one hand we expect this. We've already shared some important and illuminating time with these people who were so inspired by Liedtke that we do need some indication of how her demise hit them. On the other hand there is so much of it it falls easily into repetition and makes a few minutes of screen time seem like half and hour. Then, at the very end (can't see how this is a spoiler) there is a moment of the cast of the show acknowledging Liedtke's life and inspiration that carries almost no words but says much more.

The posthumous piece, Twelfth Floor, is taken to her birthplace in Stutgaart. It is a triumph. Backstage the dancers toast Liedtke with champagne. All of them are gently tearful. The camera performs a slow searching pan. Here one towels her face. There another avoids the gaze of the lens and looks away. It's not choreographed but it is movement charged with a quiet understanding of survival. Cutting into this we see again the magic lantern image of Liedtke against the night time landscape rolling by. Is this her entry into the afterlife? Afterlives only need memory. That's what we now, movingly and by genuine cinema, see. My one-legged dance is now no more and will never be again.

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