Meryl Tankard is a powerhouse of Australian dance. She learnt ballet the 1960s and 70s when training was grueling with the discipline expected of the teachers was close to torture. She remembers seeing a teacher pushing a little girl’s head in to a bucket of water until she was forced smiled.
She compares dance discipline to that of the military – her father served in air force in the Second World War.
Born in Darwin, she lived in Melbourne, Newcastle and Penang and her childhood has inspired many of her works, including Two Feet.
Meryl’s professional dancing career started with The Australian Ballet in 1975, but her time in the world of ballet was short lived. In 1978 Meryl moved to Germany to work with Pina Bausch at Tanztheater Wuppertal . Meryl says she blew in from Australia “red lips, red nails”, it was the 70s after all, employed on a soloist contact to the surprise of many. Soon after, she was performing in one of Bausch’s most revered works Café Müller and became one of Pina Bausch’s most recognised dancers. Bausch described her style:
“There was a tension between her fragility and her courage. Meryl had and understanding of measure, of boundaries; this instinct and experience gave her that edge.”
When starting at the company, audiences didn’t understand Bausch’s style. “People were booing, we sometimes only had 30 people in the audiences”. Bausch “wanted everything” Meryl explains: “She was stubborn and very vague”.
Meryl came back to Australia in 1984 because she was home sick and missed the sky. During the 1980s she started to make her mark on the Australian dance scene. In 1989, she took on a small company in Canberra and called it the Meryl Tankard Company. Her work was almost a hybrid between dance and theatre a style that divided audience and critics. They were truly incredible shows.
In 1993, Meryl took on the artistic directorship of the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), in Adelaide. Her period at the company helped to put Australian contemporary dance on the world stage. Robyn Archer has described this as an amazing time for Adelaide:
“It was new and exciting, it was risky and it was courageous”.
Meryl time at ADT was cut short with the board terminating her contract in 1999. The industry was in shock; how could the board be so short sighted when ADT was at the height of such phenomenal success. Where there elements of sexism involved? Meryl explains in regards to gender and dance:
“We have this fake idea that dance is a very feminine art form, it is only because we see the women busting their guts on the stage.”
Meryl continued choreographing and her worked ranged from the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony to Disney’s Tarzan. And her work The Oracle, set to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, with dancer Paul White was a triumph.
Meryl re-defines the boundaries and is increasingly turning to film. Her film Michelle’s Story is a moving portrait of her friend Michelle Ryan, who was a dance for Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre and was later diagnosed with MS.
This was an interview where I was left constantly saying “wow”. Because WOW what an amazing creative woman. Meryl Tankard is truly incredible! This conversation covers includes managing boards, gender and dance; Pina Bausch; making dance for film; and so much else in between. It was recorded on Anzac Day in a quiet spot in the park (until all the children came to play around us).
“People say to me, ‘are you still dancing’, and I go ‘well what is dancing? What does dancing mean, I go in to the studio and put music on?’ Maybe I dance when I play with my niece. […] we are sort of dancing every day aren’t we?”
This is the last episode of season two. I am overwhelmed by the reception of this podcast with absolutely zero budget; there are thousands of people listening. Season three is already in production with three episodes already recorded. Stay tuned. If you want to help spread the word, please share these episodes with your networks. Thanks for listening.