‘He changed the landscape’: Garry Stewart’s swan song arrives for the Australian Dance Theatre

“I had a very palpable sense of destiny that for some reason I knew I was going to get the job.”

This is how dance choreographer Garry Stewart felt in 1999 after an interview with the national company Australian Dance Theater (ADT).

Twenty-two years later, with 25 works with the company under his belt and having turned contemporary dance on its head, he opened his final ADT show, simply titled G, in Adelaide on Thursday night.

“Maybe everyone who applies for a job believes they will get it, but for some reason I had a very strong faith,” Stewart said.

His name has since become synonymous with contemporary dance theatre, with a string of hits touring Australia and the world from ADT’s Adelaide base.

These include The Age of Unbeauty (2002), Devolution (2006), G (2008), Be Your Self (2010), Proximity (2012), the Beginning of Nature (2018), and Stewart’s first ADT film, Birdbrain, which boot immediately upon release in 2000.

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

Birdbrain kicks open doors

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

Dancing in white shirts standing or lying on a black stage
Birdbrain premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 2000 and went on to tour worldwide to critical acclaim.(Supplied: Alex Makayev/ADT )

“I was very lucky because it was my first work for the company and we’ve performed it over 200 times on quite a few continents, so it’s been great for the company to have that success very early on,” said Stewart.

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

He considered it a high point in his career, saying the creative process behind Birdbrain “felt like vomit.”

“It felt like the result of a whole bunch of intuitive feelings about dance that had been popping up in me for a while,” Stewart said.

“And when it landed, it was really interesting.”

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Robotic Innovation

Another highlight was 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 the time,” Stewart said.

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

It also won two Helpmann Awards for both Stewart and Demers, an SA Ruby Award for innovation and one of several Australian Dance Awards and Green Room Awards that Garry Stewart and the ADT would eventually win under his tenure.

After receiving a Centenary Award from the Australian Government for services to the arts in 2001, Stewart also received the inaugural 2015 Australia Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance.

Dancers with prosthetic and mechanical attachments on a stage.
Garry Stewart teamed up with Canadian roboticist Louise-Philippe Demers for Devolution in 2006.(Provided: Georg Meyer Weil via ADT )

From the beginning of Sydney

Prior to his tenure with the ADT, Stewart lived in his hometown of Sydney, where he choreographed as a freelancer.

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

“I had the acting bug, but I also had more plans to become a choreographer, so I came back and got on with it,” Stewart said.

A man watches over three dancers
Garry 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, under the artistic direction of Meryl Tankard, the ADT built on its international reputation with innovative shows such as Furiosa and Aurora.

After Tankard retired in 1999, Stewart successfully applied to take the helm, becoming the longest-serving artistic director in the company’s history, with 19 stage works and six film and video works to his credit.

“Twenty-two years is extraordinary, for any organization, and is probably a testament to how few artistic director positions there are in the country,” Stewart said.

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Giving a part of yourself

Stewart said each work was like creating a part of yourself that is then given to the world, only to inspire another part of yourself that “wants to speak and enter the world.”

“But no work really fulfills this overall picture of yourself, or of who you are as an artist,” he said.

“It’s really a body of work that will do that, a kind of discourse between a whole series of works that can say something about an artist.”

The facade of a theater advertisement for Supernature
Supernature premiered in March as Garry Stewart’s last original work for the Australian Dance Theater.(Delivered: Paul Doherty)

To celebrate its 20th year with the ADT, in 2019 the company produced Anthology, a program full of highlights from Stewart’s six most successful shows.

However, since 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 restrictions, the company has operated very differently, postponing its tour schedule and presenting its shows only to the South Australian public.

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

“The advantage is that we have done a lot in Adelaide,” he said.

“I’ve been lucky enough as an artist to work in Adelaide during the pandemic, where we’ve been able to perform all year round.”

A man holds out his hand as mirrors in the background show dancers rehearsing
Garry Stewart during rehearsals for 2016’s Objeckt, which ADT presented in Adelaide this year. (Supplied: ADT)

the last act

Stewart has spent much of the past two years as a professor of creative arts at Flinders University, and his works with the ADT have been studied as part of dance curricula in schools and colleges.

“It’s humbled and gratifying to know that what I’ve been doing has really changed and contributed to the cultural landscape in Australia and that my time with the company has really made a difference,” he said.

For its latest act, the ADT performs G at Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theater, a 2008 production that takes a similar approach to Birdbrain by dismantling a classical ballet, Giselle.

He has no plans to stop creating after stepping aside for upcoming Artistic Director Daniel Riley, who will take over from January 1.

“I’m looking forward to opening my own practice as an artist in opera and film, creating large site-specific projects and working a little more nationally and internationally,” Stewart said.

A woman in green on a stage puts up her red hair
Like Birdbrain before it, G also referred to an iconic ballet, Giselle.(Supplied: Ashley Of Pleasure/ADT)

He will be missed at the ADT, however, with fellow Artistic Director Sarah-Jayne Howard — who has worked with Stewart since his pre-ADT days — describing him as “the most tenacious person I know”.

She said his impact simply “changed the entire landscape of dance everywhere” with a “crazy, physical, sweeping vocabulary”.

“We’ve traveled all over the world and people had never seen anything like it.”

G can be seen at Her Majesty’s Theater until November 29.

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