Tanja Liedtke’s name was suddenly everywhere in May 2007, when she was appointed artistic director of Sydney Dance Company. The 29-year-old dancer and choreographer claimed to be “absolutely ecstatic” about her new role, and there was a great deal of ecstasy in the arts industry too: a notable lack of pre-emptive poppy-lopping, the genuine hope of generational change. Three months later, Liedtke’s name made the headlines again. While walking through Crows Nest in the early hours of the morning she had been struck and killed by a rubbish truck.
The story is clearly tragic and yet Life in Movement, the new documentary about Liedtke’s life and art, is not entirely a tragic film. Filmmakers Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde mine footage from Liedtke’s past, and follow a group of her dancers touring the world, posthumously performing her final work. With a pacy soundtrack by DJ Trip, it is a moving, powerful film about a powerful (and always moving) woman.
As a dancer, Liedtke was incandescent, her long limbs amplifying every gesture, her body flaming across the stage. Her choreography was muscular, witty and heartbreaking, marrying physical comedy to virtuosity and to virtuosity’s underside, vulnerability. As a director, she was gruelling. “I got to the point where I felt if I wasn’t achieving one of these notes I was destroying the show,” says one of her dancers. And yet her dancers were devoted to her, admitting that her death still feels like “someone taking away food”. The film gently examines the aftermath of her death, as her troupe continues to rehearse without her, rudderless and a little narky.
Some of the footage is so poignant as to be almost unbearable. “This is what you’re going to look like when you’re middle-aged,” says a friend, as an adolescent Liedtke goofs around in a wig. Other clips illuminate her artistic process. “Where’s Tanja?” asks a teenage friend as she clambers out of a school locker; later this is transformed into her claustrophobic work, Twelfth Floor.
Liedtke was not without self-doubt. When she locks herself in a studio for a week with a camera, you can feel the air bearing in around her, like the most oppressive of blank pages. “Pull yourself together, pull yourself together” she repeats, slapping herself across the face. It was these doubts that prompted the long nocturnal walks that finally killed her; it was also these doubts that fed her art. “It’s in the process of making that you solve those doubts,” observes her long-term partner and collaborator, Solon Ulbrich.
“What does Tanja want?” reads a handwritten list that flashes across the screen halfway through the film. She wants to be surrounded by “inspired and inspiring people”; she wants always to be “in motion”. This inspiring film allows her just that, for a little longer.
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