Tanja Liedtke on film: a tribute to her brief but brilliant life

The appointment was for 10am, the place was the top floor of a hotel in Macquarie Street in Sydney’s CBD and the date was May 3, 2007.

I had no preconceptions as I walked into the reception room where the wrap-around harbour views encompassed the Botanic Gardens and the white sails of the Sydney Opera House.

There was the artistic director to be of the Sydney Dance Company, a successor to Graeme Murphy who had led the company for 31 years. She was a vibrant young woman dressed in black, with artfully curled red hair and intense green eyes. Like the dancer she was, Tanja Liedtke posed with natural grace for the Sydney Morning Herald photographer.

Questions – the usual, who, where, what, how and why. I remember her smile and her slight hesitations. She admired the choreography of Pina Bausch, Les Ballets C de la B, Akram Khan and Emio Greco. Her own peripatetic background, moving with her father, who worked for the Bosch group, and mother, from country to country helped inspire her choreography. No, Graeme Murphy’s work was not part of her plan for the future.

She had worked happily and successfully with Lloyd Newson at DV8 and with Garry Stewart at Australian Dance Theatre.

As the photographer began taking her portrait, I noticed a little crib sheet of notes she had made for herself about her “vision” for the company. That day, she faced a number of media interviews – a unique experience for the 29 year old.

The magnitude of the task ahead was clear and I admired her brave façade.

Back at the Herald, I wondered how I would explain this relative newcomer to a readership that had been brought up on “Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company”.

I contacted Lloyd Newson, among others, for his take on the appointment which he described as “a brave and exciting decision. She is an incredibly hard-working and talented performer and a total delight to work with”.

“Welcome to her Brave New World” was the headline over the story the next day.

Just over three months later she was dead.

For the next few weeks, the impact of Tanja’s death was profound in the arts community. Her courageous father, Dr Kurt Liedtke, came to Sydney immediately. We met in the driving rain one Sunday in Neutral Bay. It’s one of the moments I’m never going to forget. No need for questions. He just spoke from the heart about his beloved daughter.

What I didn’t know at the time was how much Tanja had already achieved in her short life and how much she represented a lighthouse of hope to so many people who worked with her in Europe and Australia.

The achievements, rather than the tragedy of Tanja, form the basis for a new documentary, Life in Movement, directed by two of her friends, filmmakers, Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde.

After screenings last year at film festivals in Australia and overseas, and at Spring Dance at the Sydney Opera House, the film will go into general release on April 12.

Life in Movement documents Tanja’s pivotal role as an inspirational focus for other dancers and reveals her unique choreographic voice, one that is clear, engaging and powerful. You look at her work and do not start to compare it with anyone else’s.

The selection panel that chose her to lead the SDC was absolutely right in their choice but as the dancer, Kristina Chan, says in the documentary, Tanja was full of self-doubts.

“She said she knew how to be a great dancer, but didn’t really know how to be a great director”, said Chan.

“She was such a powerful woman but also such a girl. She was scared”.

Tanja had choreographed and danced with various companies but had never directed a company herself. At the time of her appointment, the Sydney Dance Company was going through administrative changes. As well, its dancers were traumatised by the long drawn out process of Murphy’s departure and the uncertainty of the company’s funding.

As I wrote a few days after her death, on the last night of her life she watched Bangarra Dance Theatre’s work, True Stories, had two drinks with her partner, Sol Ulbrich, and Bangarra dancers at the Opera Bar at the Sydney Opera House, and at about 11pm, went home with Sol to their apartment in Neutral Bay.

At about midnight, the couple went to bed. Tanja dozed, but woke soon after to tell Sol that her head was full with so many thoughts about her new job that she needed to clear her mind by walking alone in the fresh air.

He was woken at 4am by the doorbell at the top-floor apartment. His first thought: Tanja must have left her key behind.

But it was two police officers, who told him that Tanja had been hit by a truck at Crows Nest on the Pacific Highway. The accident happened between 2am and 2.30am. It appears that she had been walking for an hour, or an hour and a half.

As her father says in the documentary, “ in one second it destroyed so much”.

Sol talks of the visit by the police but the filmmakers don’t dwell on the accident itself, but on the impact and aftermath on others.

They talk frankly about the loss and their memories, in much the same way as Pina Bausch’s dancers did after her death in the film Pina in 3D, directed by Wim Wenders.

There was no shortage of footage to intersperse with the interviews as Tanja worked with a video camera and often filmed herself dancing, rehearsing, or just playing around with ideas. Among the most disturbing footage is one in which she cries, slaps her own face repeatedly and tells herself “pull yourself together”.

We see her as a girl of 11, an outsider, who boarded at Elmhurst dance school in London. As a Spanish speaking German, she did not fit in with the pack but her destiny kept her there throughout her teenage years. As Tanja says in the film, “dance brewed in my blood”.

A substantial part of the documentary covers a European tour of her work, undertaken by her collaborators after her death.

As for her own work, it’s wonderful to see once more segments of her last work, the witty construct, which, as Sol says, “is a lovely little insight into the way we go about building our lives”.

But the standout work in the film is Twelfth Floor, a piece for five dancers who are forced to cohabit within confined spaces in an institutional setting, perhaps a hospital, where one man draws chalk lines on the walls and one woman is thrust into the space to survive or fall – is she Tanja’s alter ego?

She has referred to the way she was forced to share space with 10 other girls in the Elmhurst school dormitory for many years.

Tanja wrote of her own work: “Twelfth Floor is a landscape in which we become confined observers. Sometimes searching for exits, sometimes happy to remain”.

Dancers in the film include Kristina Chan, Paul White, Julian Crotti, Anton, Amelia McQueen, Theo Clinkard, Craig Bary, and Joshua Tyler. There are interviews, too, with her mentor, Shane Carroll, and choreographers Garry Stewart, and Lloyd Newson.

Newson, who goes to great lengths to avoid being photographed, is seen in the documentary partly hiding under a floppy, cloth sun hat and behind sunglasses.

Among his insights is this: “Like a lot of people who are really strong, she has this fragility”.

Strong and fragile, yes, but also blessed with the gift of a rare talent that now lives on in the memories and muscles of her former dancers.

The film will screen at Cinema Nova in Melbourne, Arc Cinema in Canberra, and the Dendy in Sydney. Check the Life in Movement page on Facebook for more locations.