Tanja Liedtke: Life in Movement

Posted: August 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Life in Movement, directed by Bryan Mason, produced by Closer Productions.

The news of Nigel Charnock’s untimely death has prompted me to finish writing about a film released last year in Australia about an artist who died too young to reach her full maturity: the German-born dancer and choreographer, Tanja Liedtke. Charnock and Liedtke perhaps knew each other, almost certainly knew of each other. They were in many ways kindred spirits: performance for both was a way of life and movement was their language. Coincidentally, each at one point in their lives found expression for their talents in DV8 Physical Theatre. The award-winning film, Life in Movement, directed by Bryan Mason for Closer Productions, is a memorial to Liedtke, who was at the time of her death about to take up the directorship of Sydney Dance Company. At the same time the film is about what remains: the lives of those closest to her, the dancers with whom she worked and the handful of works she created.

The film begins with one of Liedtke’s earliest memories: “People used to ask what do you want to be when you’re older? I was three at the time and I said I really want to be a flower. I didn’t understand that wasn’t possible. Then I went to see my neighbour in a school concert, a really little production of the Waltz of the Flowers and they had these tutus and things on their heads and they were flowers and they were dancing and I said, oh, all these adults telling me I can’t be a flower, but I can; I’ve seen it happen.”

She died at 29, hit by a garbage truck in the early hours of the morning near her home in Sydney.

The film cuts between performance clips of her works to reminiscences of her dancers, from her family to clips of her improvising and clowning in front of the camera in her living room, a hotel room, a bathroom or a studio. There is a beautifully sinuous and playful quality to her movement, but there can also be a ruthless self-criticism, as when she slaps her face repeatedly to the refrain of ‘pull yourself together’. Here is someone whose diary consisted of fragments she would haul up from somewhere deeply anchored in her life and express in movement. Life in Movement shows clearly how these fragments wove themselves into the fabric of her work, which gave it a unique quality that was – and remains – universal. There is a clip of Liedtke that recurs throughout the film: she has a bag on her head. She is talking through the bag: “So this is all about baggage. I’m wearing it at the moment. I’m right inside it. In fact I’m consumed by it. But I have hope.”

Liedtke was born in 1977 in Stuttgart. Her family moved to Spain where she started dance classes, then moved to the UK where she was accepted into Elmhurst Ballet School. Theo Clinkard, who met her at Elmhurst, said she was an outsider from the beginning, but some grainy clips from that time show an unusually bright and creative force. Once she knew she wanted to express herself in contemporary dance, she spent a year at the Rambert School before moving to Australia where she joined Australian Dance Theatre in 1999. In 2003 she returned to England to join DV8, for whom she appeared in Just for Show as the incomparable compere and in The Cost of Living. Lloyd Newson’s comment that ‘This woman was not going to say no to any challenge” was prophetic.

Returning to Australia to work on her own choreographic projects, she gathered around her a small, unified and dedicated group of dancers (Amelia McQueen, Kristina Chan, Anton, Paul White, Julian Crotti) for whom she created her two major works, Twelfth Floor and Construct. Twelfth Floor explores forced cohabitation, how people react and deal with it, based on the eight years Liedtke had spent in various boarding school establishments. Construct is about what we construct in our lives, a journey to find a dream place, though it may not be what you think it will be. It is a lovely insight into how we go about building our lives. For Liedtke, there was no differentiation between life and dance. “Whatever is happening, you put it into your work.”

She and her partner, Sol Ulbrich, made these projects happen. Ulbrich was producer, stage manager, tour manager and rehearsal director, while Liedtke was the creative force and motivator. What the interviews with her dancers reveal is how Liedtke drew out the best in them, sometimes under duress, and how difficult it was for them to keep that sense of unity after her death. Chan, a beautiful dancer in her own right, said she had found the person with whom she had wanted to work for the rest of her life; how sad that she would never be able to work with her again. Crotti expressed the difficulty of going from someone whom he trusted with the final say to taking direction from a lot of people. He perhaps understated the case when he added it was an ‘interesting transition’. The film is honest enough to expose these and other tensions and fissures. As Ulbrich says, “What are you going to do when someone who formed the group, led the group, inspired the group and had vision for the group is no longer there?” An image, the film suggests, like a lighthouse that loses its light.

What is left is the work itself, which is still luminous. London audiences were privileged to see Liedtke perform in her own work in 2007, when her company performed Twelfth Floor at Southbank Centre (look for a wonderful clip of her performing on what looks like a small rectangle of green, her hands like hummingbirds, her body’s motion inexpressibly beautiful). Eighteen months after her death Ulbrich remounted Construct and Twelfth Floor for a final tour to share her work with those who hadn’t yet seen it. One stop was London in March 2009 and the final performance took place in Stuttgart, Liedtke’s birthplace.

Crotti said of Liedtke’s work: “As an artist, if you put all you have into everything you do, then you are in it, your story is in it. So when she left, there she was in the work. It was an amazing dedication, an amazing life that she was able to do that.” I would add that not only is she there in her work, but her dancers demonstrate to what extent her work is in them. To see the film is to be awed by the unity of inspiration and performance, of vision and execution. In the final clip from the final performance of Twelfth Floor, Chan comes back on stage through a door, climbs the wall and disappears over the top into the dark: it is a metaphor for Liedtke’s all too brief exit from a life of inspired movement.

Official trailer for the film

For information on when the film will be screened in the UK, follow the Facebook link: www.facebook.com/lifeinmovement