In 2007, Tanja Liedtke was an Australian choreographer on the rise — an inventive new voice bringing heart and humour to contemporary dance.
In a bold move by the Sydney Dance Company, the 29-year-old had just been hired as their new artistic director, and the dance world was drinking in the unique vision of the young choreographer.
“Tanja seemed to just be rising really quickly, because of her work, because of her drive, because of her vision,” said Kristina Chan, Tanja’s best friend, fellow dancer and collaborator.
“She really set the bar high with her work ethics and standards. She really inspired people who worked with her to really give their all … but she also had that other side to her where she was cheeky, gorgeous, fun, spontaneous.”
But just two months into Liedtke’s much-anticipated appointment, she was hit by a garbage truck, and died.
Her death devastated her friends and family, and rocked the contemporary dance community both in Australia and internationally.
“When someone like Tanja passes away in that manner, someone who was so talented and young and gifted and all of those things, we just kind of get the sense any of us can be snapped away at any time,” Australian Dance Theatre director Garry Stewart said.
Ten years on, Liedtke’s final dance work, Construct, has been given new life — a striking, playful and moving piece that still feels vital and contemporary today.
“The dancers work with wood, building shapes, building structures, then as the work unfolds we start to explore building of cliched dreams, of building a house, a family or a relationship,” Chan said.
Steward added: “I have to say when I think Tanya was 28 when she made Construct, that is quite extraordinary, the kind of incisiveness and insight and intelligence it would take to produce a work like that.”
Chan was one of the dancers in the original performance of Construct, and this time returns as its director.
“The work had great success at the time and after her passing was sort of put to bed, put to rest, kind of just left it,” she said.
“This time around, it’s really interesting drawing on memories … it was like a detective work trying to work out every little piece that happened in the work, from video, and trying to draw it from different sources.”
The complex dance work has proved a moving remembrance to Liedtke’s prodigious talent.
“It is 10 years and that marks a significant time frame, and maybe somehow it needed that duration too for people to process what had happened,” Stewart said.
“Maybe there needed to be a certain amount of healing before anyone could even go near reproducing this work.”
The performance was particularly special for Liedtke’s mother, Gerlinde Liedtke, who flew from Germany for the dance she’d been waiting years to see.
“I was so sad it could never go on stage anymore when Tanya passed away,” she said.
“It is happiness and sadness because if I see the dancers who are so close to her still and who are inspired by her way of working … but the other side is the mum side … sad.”
Celebrating a legacy
The dancers and friends involved say remounting the program has been an emotional process, but a tone of celebration has surpassed grief this time around.
“After Tanja passed away we toured quite a bit of her work, so I feel like we really went through that grieving process, I feel quite at peace with her passing now,” Chan said.
“It was a really beautiful experience to be taken back to that place of grief but more of a celebration of her, so it feels different.”
The staging was supported by Liedtke’s parents, who in 2008 established the Tanja Liedtke Foundation to preserve her artistic legacy and support the development of contemporary dance.
Ms Liedtke said while the pain of loss never goes away, by fighting to support dance and seeing her daughter’s creations back of stage, “you get new energy”.
“There is one sentence, ‘Make always the best out of it, whatever comes to your life’ and then you have to clinch onto that sentence,” she said.
Stewart said the restaging process had evoked reflection about who Liedtke would have been today, and the work the young choreographer could have made.
“Part of the equation of grief and loss is to wonder what Tanja would have been like through the course of her career,” he said.
“It would have been obviously extraordinary to see how that evolved, and the places it would have taken her surely would have been remarkable.
“But anyway, we have what we have, and through Construct we’re celebrating that, and it has been quite profound.”