‘He changed the landscape’: Gary Stewart’s swan song hits the Australian dance scene

“I had this distinct sense of how, for some reason, I knew I was going to get the job.”

This is how choreographer Gary Stewart felt in 1999 after a job interview with the national costume, the Australian Dance Theater (ADT).

After 22 years, with 25 acts with the band under his belt and after turning contemporary dance on its head, Thursday night he opened his latest ADT show, titled G, in Adelaide.

“Everyone who applies for a job probably thinks they’re going to get it, but for some reason, I had that really strong belief,” Stewart said.

His name has since become synonymous with the contemporary dance scene, with a series of songs that have toured across Australia and the world from ADT’s base in Adelaide.

These include The Age of Unbeauty (2002), Devolution (2006), The G (2008), Be Your Self (2010), Proximity (2012), The Beginning of Nature (2018), and Stewart’s first ADT feature, Birdbrain, That shook the boat immediately after its launch in 2000.

Two dancers dressed in green jump in the air on the stage
G appears in Adelaide as Garry Stewart’s last show with ADT.(Supplied: Ashley of Pleasure / ADT)

Birdbrain kicks open doors

Using contemporary dance, breakdance, yoga, gymnastics, video art and electronic music, Birdbrain was a deconstruction of the narrative behind the classic, Swan Lake.

She dances in white shirts either standing or lying on the black stage
Birdbrain premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 2000, and toured worldwide to critical acclaim.(Supplied: Alex Makayev / ADT )

“I was very fortunate because it was my first job with the company and we’ve done it well over 200 times on so many continents, so it has been great that the company has achieved this success so early,” Stewart said.

“That opened a lot of doors and it was really interesting.”

Deeming it a career highlight, he said the creative process behind Birdbrain “felt like vomit”.

“It just felt like the result of a whole bunch of intuitive feelings about dancing that had been reeling inside of me for some time,” Stewart said.

“And when I landed it was really interesting.”

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robotic innovation

Another notable event is Devolution, a 2006 collaboration with Canadian roboticist Louise-Philippe Demers.

“It was probably one of the largest dance productions of its kind in the world at that time,” Stewart said.

“It was an epic project, with 30 robotic machines on stage and prosthetics on the dancers’ bodies.”

He also won two Helpmann Awards for both Stewart and Demers, the SA Ruby Award for Innovation, and one of the many Australian Dance Awards and Green Room Awards that Garry Stewart and eventually ADT won during his tenure.

After receiving the Australian Government’s Centenary Award for Services to the Arts in 2001, Stewart was also awarded the inaugural 2015 Australian Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance.

Dancers with industrial and mechanical attachments on stage.
Garry Stewart collaborated with Canadian roboticist Louise-Philippe Demers in 2006 for Devolution.(Supplied: George Mayer Weil via ADT )

From the beginnings of Sydney

Prior to taking up his position at ADT, Stewart was living in his hometown of Sydney where he choreographed as a freelancer.

After retiring as a professional dancer at the end of the 1980s, he made the decision to pursue choreography during a trip to Madrid in 1990.

“I had a mistake in my acting, but I also had more plans to be a choreographer, so I went back and got on with it,” Stewart said.

A man watching three dancers
Gary Stewart’s choreography has inspired dancers to push their limits.(Supplied: ADT)

In 1995 he was invited to create a double bill program with another Australian choreographer, Gideon Obarzanek, which led to the launch of Chunky Move, a highly successful dance company based in Victoria.

He also launched a small project-based company called Thwack! in 1998

Meanwhile, ADT has been building on its international reputation under artistic stewardship Meryl Tankard with innovative shows such as Furiosa and Aurora.

After Tankard retired in 1999, Stewart successfully applied for the position and went on to become the longest-serving Artistic Director in the company’s history, with 19 stage works and six film and video works to his name.

“Twenty-two years are exceptional, for any organization, and perhaps bear witness to the paucity of technical director positions in the country,” Stewart said.

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Giving a part of yourself

Each act, Stewart said, was to create a part of yourself that was later given to the world, only to inspire another part of yourself that “wanted to speak up and enter the world.”

But no work fulfills this full picture of yourself, or who you are as an artist, he said.

“It’s really a set of work that will do that, a letter of sorts among a whole body of work that can say something about an artist.”

Supernatural ad theater interface
Supernature premiered in March as Gary Stewart’s last original work for the Australian dance scene.(Supplied: Paul Doherty)

To celebrate his 20th birthday with ADT, in 2019 the company produced an anthology, a program packed with highlights of Stewart’s six most successful shows.

Since 2020 and the advent of COVID-19 restrictions, the company has acted very differently, postponing its tour program, presenting its shows to a South Australian audience only.

These included Supernature, Stewart’s final original work, which premiered at the renovated Her Majesty’s Theater during March in 2021.

“The plus side is we’ve done a lot in Adelaide,” he said.

“I’ve been so fortunate as an artist to work in Adelaide during the pandemic that we’ve been able to put on a show all year long.”

A man extends his hand while mirrors in the background show dancers practicing
Gary Stewart during rehearsals for the 2016 Objeckt, presented by ADT in Adelaide this year. (Supplied: ADT)

final chapter

Stewart has spent most of the past two years as Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, and his work has been studied with ADT as part of the dance curriculum in schools and universities.

“It gives me great pleasure and gratitude to know that what I have done has really changed and made some contribution to the cultural landscape in Australia and that my time with the company has actually meant something,” he said.

For his latest work, ADT performs G at Her Majesty’s Theater in Adelaide, a 2008 production that takes a similar approach to Birdbrain by deconstructing a classic ballet, Giselle.

He has no plans to stop creating after he steps aside Next Head Coach: Daniel Reilly, which takes over as of January 1st.

“I’m looking forward to just opening up my own practices as an artist who works on opera, on film, creates big site-specific projects, and does a little bit of work both nationally and internationally,” Stewart said.

A woman in green on stage flips her red hair
Like Birdbrain before him, G also referred to an iconic ballerina, Gisele.(Supplied: Ashley of Pleasure / ADT)

We’ll miss him at ADT, however, with co-art director Sarah Jane Howard – who has worked with Stewart since his earlier days on ADT – calling him “the most stubborn person I know.”

Her influence, she said, simply “changed the entire landscape of dancing everywhere” with a “crazy, physical, sweeping vocabulary.”

“We walked all over the world and people had never seen anything quite like it.”

G Shows at Her Majesty’s Theater until 29 November.

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