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Pioneer's risky dance move a gift to Adelaide

Arts

“Ugly dance impresses” is one of the review headlines Elizabeth Cameron Dalman recalls from the Australian Dance Theatre’s first performances.

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It was the mid-1960s and contemporary dance was a new concept for both critics and audiences in Adelaide.

Not only was it more expressive than classical ballet, the dancers were barefoot. They danced to soundtracks ranging from classical to jazz, electronic music and – heaven forbid – even folk songs.

“Nobody had ever heard of anybody dancing to a folk song before,” says Dalman, who founded the Adelaide-based ADT.

“That was very, very avant-garde at the time.

“Australia was very conservative and the dance that was known as a theatrical form was classical ballet. There had never been any foreign modern dance companies here, so it was something different, it was something very new … very risky.”

But Dalman’s gamble paid off. While the critics may have been divided, she says audiences loved what they saw, hence the contradictory headlines.

Despite a sometimes tumultuous history – several of its artistic directors, including Dalman, left in controversial circumstances – Australian Dance Theatre has survived and is now Australia’s longest-running contemporary dance company, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The planned anniversary gala was stymied by a lack of sponsorship. But Dalman – who still dances, choreographs and teaches, and was appointed ADT patron in 2013 – has stepped into the breach.

She was in the Adelaide Arcade last week filming a “mini-documentary” with a number of the other original ADT dancers, and will return on June 10 return to host a 50th birthday founders’ event in the arcade atrium featuring a cake cutting, music and a piece of repertoire from 1965.

Dalman will present another anniversary celebration in July, when she brings her own Canberra-based Mirramu Dance Company to Adelaide with the production L, in which she dances.

“Within that production there are several excerpts from the repertoire of the first 10 years of Australian Dance Theatre,” she says of L (which takes its name from the Roman numeral for 50, as well as L for Liz).

“It also tells the story of a dancer as she ages and how you keep a vibrant life.”

There can be few lives more vibrant than that of Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. Now 81, she seems to have endless energy and passion for dance, leading the way up several flights of stairs in Gay’s Arcade to show InDaily the ADT’s original studio before recounting the story of the company’s early years.

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