Visual Arts

Strings Attached

In the opening image of a documentary video, Meryl Tankard dances sinuously, sweatily, whipping her hair in front of the camera.

"Dance really should be the ultimate form of expression," she says when she finally catches her breath. "I wanted to act, to paint, to design. But then I thought, well, if I dance I'm actually doing all that with my whole body--really a pure form of expression because I'm the only instrument."

Nonetheless, Tankard, now artistic director of the Australian Dance Theater, puts to use any other media she can access--music, voice, acting, set design, photography, lighting--to make her work truly Total Theater. On Friday, February 12, her 10-member troupe appears at Scottsdale Center for the Arts in her airborne one-hour dance, Furioso.

A former ballerina with, and director of, the Australian Ballet, this fearless choreographer has an award-winning oeuvre of more than 16 ballets since 1984--each one matchless in originality. But for all the singularity of her works, Tankard unifies them with a spectrum of human emotion and accouters them with such signifiers as water, ropes, cabbages, and most often, hair.

In a 1988 piece titled Two Feet, she mimes how hard it was as a child to brush her own inky tresses back into a dancer's knot. In the gorgeous Nuti (1990), the dancers' vertical movements cause their hair to fly up, lengthening their bodies. Two works in 1992 pull heavily, so to speak, on the hair for movement and ritual. In Songs With Mara, the dancers flagellate themselves with their wet hair. And in Chants de Mariage, the dancers plait each other's hair, their heads suspended in stone by the hair as they sing; and as Tankard unrolls a red carpet for the wedding ceremony, her hair flows along it like lava.

By phone from Los Angeles, Tankard talks about her hair thing. I tell her I've always loved to see the hair freed from the knot to move on its own. "It's another piece of the body to use," she agrees. "But I'm not aware that I'm doing it. I cut my hair about a year ago, and I wondered why. It seems every time there's a major change in my life, I cut my hair." So hair has ritual value? "I guess so, yes."

In the mid-Eighties I saw a dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by Pina Bausch's Wuppertaler Tanztheatre in which the dancers' hair was a movement motif, almost a fifth limb. Tankard, who had found her way from Adelaide, Australia, to Wuppertal, Germany, in the Seventies, had been dancing with Bausch's Tanztheatre for six years by then. Could the piece have been Bluebeard, and could she have been dancing in it?

"Oh, yes," she bubbles over into laughter as she often does. "That was a hairy dance."

Soon after, she went back to Adelaide to form her own dance theater, which has enjoyed weeks-long seasons in Tokyo and European capitals for years. She is being forced to disband the fabled company after this tour. "Our board (a volunteer board that meets once a month) decided they didn't want an international company in Adelaide; they want something more local. All the dancers will be leaving [for opportunities abroad]."

Adelaide's provincialism leaves Arizona only one more opportunity to see these dancers perform as a company. (They performed in Tucson on February 10.)

But dancing with Bausch had been a crucible for Tankard. She railed against the rigidity of ballet from the start.

"To look so light and wonderful, you have to go through a lot of pain. Being in the ballet was like being a little doll."

To escape the pretty pink ballerina straitjacket, she took the odd character roles whenever possible, because they had meat on them. When Tanztheatre accepted her, it was a revelation.

"With ballet you're always resisting the earth, trying to fly," she explains.

But with Bausch, she discovered "this incredible movement that was into the earth and out of the earth."

Though Bausch erased all boundaries for her, Tankard says, "I didn't want to use Pina's vocabulary. I want to do a different vocabulary for each work."

With Regis Lansac, a French photographer who became her associate, set designer, and life partner, she has succeeded. Assigned to photograph her troupe, they met, and Tankard invited him to photograph her on nearby cliffs over splashing waves. In a ball gown billowing with yards of tulle, she looks like a spectacular sea anemone. His stunning slide images now make up a good portion of her sets.

Drawing from an inexhaustible well of inspiration and wisely accepting the assistance of kindred spirits like Lansac, she has produced pieces as different as Kikkimora and Nuti. Both 1990 works, the first is a spooky dance of dolls that come to life, while in Nuti, Lansac's Egyptian hieroglyphs, projected onto the cheesecloth-skirted dancers, erase the boundaries between the moving images.

She credits a lot of her musical choices to Lansac.
"He's often finding me CDs. I like Hungarian music, Eastern European. We play them in the rehearsal room. We listen as we work and latch on to things that way."

She named the piece she's currently touring in the United States, Furioso, after a movement in Henryk Gorecki's powerful string quartet, Quasi Una Fantasia, performed by Kronos. The work comprises five sections and includes excerpts from Elliott Sharpe's Digital CD, also by Kronos, and Arvo Part's Sara Was 90 Years Old.

Technically, Furioso, which features five women harnessed at the waist on ropes and the five men who vie for their physical attentions, seems a very difficult dance.

"We use mountain climbing ropes--not bungee cords as many critics report--on pulley systems. They're tied to the bars and we have to tie them off at the side because the bar in the flyspace moves. In Stanford we had to put tons of steel weights on to make them safe."

Rather like going through a lot of pain to look so light and wonderful?
She laughs, appreciating the irony. "Wind is dancing, why can't we defy gravity? So we got ropes and we dance like the wind. The dancers got so excited about it that the whole piece is on ropes, bodies and hair flying.