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Elizabeth Cameron Dalman and Australian modern dance

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM is known as the founder of modern Australian dance. When she established the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide in 1965, the reaction to her new dance form was controversial.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman fronting the 2006 Senior Citizens Campaign

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman fronting the 2006 Senior Citizens Campaign. Image courtesy of the New South Wales Office for Women.

Many Australians couldn't get enough of this modern, expressive dance and, in Dalman's words, loved it because it was new and exciting'. Others, particularly the mainstream arts community, were scathing in their criticism. They believed modern dance would never take off and was only for heavy dancers or those who couldn't do classical ballet.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman's foundation of the Australian Dance Theatre led to a flourishing of public programs and workshops in modern dance techniques and improvisation. Together with the establishment of the Australian Ballet in 1962 under Dame Peggy van Praagh, Australia confirmed its position on the international dance stage.

Modern dance was seen as the freedom to express a modern view of the world and had its beginnings in the first wave of Australian ballet which also draw on collaborations with contemporary musicians, visual artists and photographers with the intention of creating a new and invigorating medium. The establishment of the Australian Dance Theatre also coincided with Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War from 1965–75 and influenced the early Indigenous dance companies of the 1970s. Also, through her relationship with the Eleo Pomare Modern Dance company, Dalman's life as a dancer, teacher and choreographer has helped to define Australia's cultural identity and expression in the modern world.

Portrait of Elizabeth Dalman, 1973

Douglas McNaughton, Portrait of Elizabeth Dalman, 1973, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: vn3292000.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman is a nationally and internationally renowned choreographer, teacher and performer who lives at Lake George in NSW and runs Mirramu Creative Arts Centre. As expressed through her art, Dalman has always been strongly involved in human rights and supports Aboriginal rights, women's rights, the environment and contemporary arts.

Dalman's early training in dance (1930s–60s)

Adelaide and the lineage to Isadora Duncan

Dalman was born in Adelaide in 1934. As a young girl she studied classical ballet with Nora Stewart, who she says, 'was a wonderful influence on my life'. Under Nora Stewart, Dalman studied the Margaret Morris modern dance technique, which had a big following in Britain during the early 20th century but had not yet become popular in Australia. Margaret Morris was considered bohemian for her time. She was the first proponent of the Isadora Duncan technique in Great Britain and was known for her provocative philosophies on dance and culture, as well as for her risque personal life.

jose limon at Jacobs pillow

Jose Limn at Jacobs Pillow, c. 1948. Photo by John Lindquist. Image courtesy of the Limn Dance Company.

Dalman began her European dance journey in classical ballet. She joined the Dutch company Ballet der Lage Landen for a year, and later the Dutch production of My Fair Lady for another year. But after seeing a modern dance performance directed by Jos Limon in London she knew what her future in dance would be. 'There were only 14 people in the audience but it blew me away and changed my life forever. I thought, That's the way I want to dance.'

Art and life

Modern art is about an awakening of greater consciousness in our humanity. Art is a creative process. In order for an artist to produce work of value, they must go through that process. Art is hopefully a sharing on a universal level: a sharing in our humanity.
Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Interview by Gillian Freeman, 1 May 2009

New York and Eleo Pomare

Dalman studied towards a Bachelor of Arts at Adelaide University in her early twenties but went to London to study dance before completing it.

In 1957 she went to Europe, London and later New York in search of a better understanding of dance. In New York she studied with Martha Graham, Murray Louis, James Truitte, and Alwin Nikolais. She also studied with Kurt Joos at the Folkwangschule in Essen-Werden, Germany where she also met American choreographer Eleo Pomare. Pomare was a major influence on her and became a great friend until his death in August 2008.

In 1962 and 1963, Dalman performed with the Eleo Pomare Modern Dance Company, and returned to Australia in 1963. In 1966, she travelled to New York for three months to undertake intensive training in modern dance, returning with an understanding of modern dance techniques and a new repertoire.

Dalman as the pioneer of the Australian Dance Theatre (1965–75)

A celebration of the modern art form

Dalman choreography for ADT 1971

Unknown, Dancers from the Australian Dance Theatre in a modern ballet choreographed by Dalman 'The Oldest Continent, Time Raiders', 1971. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3296158-v.

In 1965, inspired by her experience in New York and by the Australian environment, Dalman set up the Australian Dance Theatre, which taught modern and contemporary dance for the first time in Australia.

The Australian Dance Theatre promoted the use of strong techniques parallel to classical dance but following more of the natural body posture like walking. Modern dance was taught as an alternative to classical ballet. It took us inside, acknowledging the internal and external, celebrating our own individuality and riches'.

A reaction to the sociopolitical environment

The development of modern Australian dance occurred at the same time as Australia was responding to the Vietnam War, the changing role of women, and Indigenous people. The Vietnam War had a significant social and cultural impact on Australia. It influenced Australian music with a new wave of folk and rock. It also had a big impact on television, film, video installation and the visual arts, and strongly influenced the development of modern dance.

By 1969 anti-war protests were gathering momentum in Australia. Opposition to conscription mounted, as more people came to believe the war could not be won. A 'Don't register' campaign to dissuade young men from registering for conscription gained increasing support and some of the protests grew violent
Australian War Memorial, Vietnam War 196275

Dalman saw modern dance as a means of expression. She taught it as her response to many of the issues in this sociopolitical environment. Many artists believed classical dance could not express a modern view of a world which had changed so dramatically since the Second World War, and particularly since Hiroshima. These artists wanted to become more spiritual and holistic in the way they expressed themselves.

Modern dance became more in tune with the ceremonial and spiritual nature of Indigenous song, music and dance. Modern dance saw that Indigenous dance was explored as an expression of a whole: of spirituality and self-expression where ceremony is the underlying basis. Ceremony contains many significant elements, some of which are specifically related to depicting Dreaming stories. From an Aboriginal perspective, Indigenous song, music and dance are all part of a complex whole.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, 'urban Aboriginal people were looking at revitalising their culture' through the Yelang Dancers and the Torres Strait Island Dance Group in South Brisbane. In 1972, Eleo Pomare's modern Afro-American dance company visited from New York.

carole johnson teaching class Sydney 1978

Carole Johnson teaching class, Sydney, 1978. Photo by Lee Chittick. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia an12235646.

Carole Johnson toured Australia as part of the Eleo Pomare Company, and was commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts to run dance classes for Aboriginal people in Sydney. This inspired a series of workshops in Redfern, Sydney, which were supported by the Aboriginal Arts Board. David Gulpilil taught traditional dance and Lucy Jumawan taught contemporary dance.

Carole Johnson returned from America in 1974 and resumed regular contemporary dance classes, which saw the foundation of the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre. This led to the development of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA), one of the predecessors of the Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Dalman believed that modern dance was a reflection of a changing culture in Australia and overseas and a better way for many Australian artists to express their identity.

Modern dance became a freedom of expression. My body felt better doing it. It did not belong to another culture. It reflected the freedom to express who we were at the time.
Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Interview by Gillian Freeman, 1 May 2009

Reactions to the Australian Dance Theatre and modern dance

When the Australian Dance Theatre broke free of its classical traditions in 1967 and became only a modern dance theatre, it was heavily criticised. The Australian public, particularly the mainstream arts community, were more interested in classical ballet such as the Australian Ballet established in 1962, although Australian audiences had been dazzled by the companies and dance forms influenced by the Ballets Russes, which visited Australia in the late 1930s.

According to Dalman, even Sir Robert Helpmann was reputed to say, modern dance is only for heavy dancers'. When he saw the modern dance he said Oh, that's only for dancers who can't do classical ballet and they're barefoot anyway'. In an interview for Stateline in South Australia in February 2005, Dalman said It was often called 'ugly dance' and I used to smile about that and be even more determined that I was going to change people's view of dance and begin to see it as beautiful dance.'

The public's support for the modern dance theatres as a teaching resource

blanco and leslie at Weipa 1979 pic by lee chittick

Sylvia Blanco and Michael Leslie dancing in the community hall at Weipa, 1979. Photo by Lee Chittick. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia an12823764-v

In 1967, Dalman began a life-long campaign to educate Australians about the philosophy of modern dance. This was fuelled by Eleo Pomare's influence and the criticism of modern dance.

As director of the Australian Dance Theatre from 1965–75, Dalman held dance workshops and other educational programs. There were open discussions before and after performances. Dalman also set up a dance school for which she often had up to 300 students every week.

Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre 1975-c. 1988

In 1975 the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) was set up as a full-time dance training course for Aboriginal and Islander students led by founding teacher Carole Johnson. Dorothea Randall and Rosalyn Watson played an important role in contributing Indigenous choreography in the 1980s. The group developed to include teachers, graduate students and advanced students of what eventually became NAISDA and frequently invited guest artists to perform with it. AIDT became a professional performing group in 1988 and was launched as a company in 1991 under the artistic directorship of Raymond Blanco.

Over the years Indigenous choreographers included David Gulpilil, Dell Sebasio, Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong. Non-Indigenous choreographers who worked with the company included Ronne Arnold, Robina Beard, Elisabeth Burke, Pierre Thibaudeau and Kate Champion (the founder of Force Majeure).

Dalman - a decade dancing in Europe, 1970-1985

In 1975 Dalman left Australia and the Australian Dance Theatre for Italy with her four-year-old son Andreas. At this time, she planned to give up dance and become a full-time mother but was inspired by the hilly environment to take dance up again and push her life in a new direction.

While overseas, Dalman was rehearsal director for Anna Sokolow's Rooms, and The Troubled Sleeper, and for Doris Humphrey's Day on Earth with Danskern in Amsterdam. During 1985, she also performed in the Solo Festival in Goes, Holland.

Dalman today (1980s onwards) – Mirramu Dance Company and Weereewa

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman in a solo work for the Canberra Dance Theatre, 1991

Ross Gould, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman in a solo work for the Canberra Dance Theatre, 1991, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3995463-v.

When Dalman returned to Australia in 1986 it was only because she could, metaphorically speaking, hear it calling her back. She wanted to be part of the emerging multicultural society. My return was sparked by the landscape. I had a mission to break the cultural cringe and celebrate being Australian.'

Dalman began a career both in performance and choreography, creating solo and group shows. She set up numerous new dance companies and organised dance and wellbeing festivals (largely inspired by the Australian landscape). In 1999 she initiated Weereewa: A Festival of Lake George at Lake George, and the Mirramu Creative Arts Centre in 1990.

albert david Mirramu river

Albert David in Mirramu Dance Company production, River, 2009. Image courtesy of the Mirramu Dance Company

In 2001 she opened the Mirramu Dance Company. She became the chairperson for the Weereewa Festival and mentored visiting artists through the Australian Choreographic Centre, which existed until 2007.

The Mirramu Dance Company, situated in Bungendore, NSW, is a contemporary dance company that presents work in both traditional and alternative venues. Much of the company's work is of an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural nature with significant community involvement.

A collaborator in Mirramu' s creative development is Albert David, who toured with Bangarra for six years. David worked on the development of WWW – Water, Water, Water in 2001 and appeared with Mirramu Dance Company in their Silk & Sun production in Canberra, 2004, Desert Silk in Adelaide, 2005 and River in Canberra, 2009.

Since 2001 Mirramu has staged a large number of productions, including Reflections (2002), Silk (2002), WWW Water, Water, Water (2002), Dance Loop One (2002), Crossing Tracks (2002) and Crossing Tracks II (2003) in collaboration with Grace Hsiao Dance Theatre of Taipei, and Red Sun, Red Earth (2003) a collaborative production with the Spirit of the Land Foundation, Ananguku Arts and Culture Aboriginal Corporation and the Mobius Kiryuho Institute, Japan. Some more recent works include Tango Lament (2008), Cry Baby (2007) and Waves of the Desert (2006).
Dalman, Elizabeth Cameron (1934-) .

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman at Mirramu Creative Arts Centre

Ross Gould, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman at Mirramu Creative Arts Centre, Lake George, 1992, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: vn3095458.

Mirramu's repertoire includes contemporary dance works that Dalman created during her time as artistic director of the Australian Dance Theatre between 1965 and 1975.

Mirramu is a mystical place. It's spoken to me deeply. The name came to me in a dream. It has several meanings. It means sleeping woman'. Mu' is an ancient word in many cultures. It means the darkness where the creativity begins'. In Russian it has a meaning of Peace unto the world'.
Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Interview by Gillian Freeman, 1 May 2009.

Dalman has influenced and connected with many artists and dance companies over the years, including Gideon Obarzanek who established Chunky Move in 1995, in Four Generations.

Today, Dalman still teaches and received an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship in the early 1990s. She was awarded an OAM in 1995 for her contribution to contemporary dance in Australia and, in 1997, received a National Dance Award for a Lifetime Achievement in Dance.

I would like to be remembered for being a part of the awakening of a greater consciousness in others in our humanity. I hope I have had just a little influence in that and contributed just a little bit to Australia. I feel I have been a vessel. I have let the voice of dance speak or move through me rather than carry through me.
Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Interview by Gillian Freeman, 1 May 2009

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Last updated: 8 September 2009
Creators: Gillian Freeman, et al.