Canberra Citizen of the Year

1992


Meryl Tankard (born 1955)

Meryl Tankard in "Chants de Mariage", 1992

SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 007264 , Canberra Theatre Trust Collection.  Photographer Regis Lansac

Meryl Tankard, the youngest of three sisters, was born in Darwin to Clifford Matthew (1917-1971) and Margaret Mary (died 2007), better known as Mick and Margot. Mick was then a Sergeant Fitter in the Motor Transport section of the RAAF, although his war service had been in the AIF. As military families do, the Tankards moved around, leaving Darwin in the late 1950s to drive to Melbourne via central Australia. They had made the trip twice before, creating some of Meryl’s earliest memories, together with the untamed grasses of their Darwin backyard and wearing underpants on her head at Uluru to deter flies. Such vivid childhood recollections found their way into her later work.

In Melbourne Meryl studied ballet for ten years with Bruce and Bernice Morrow, well-known teachers whose lessons in technique meant less to Meryl than the improvisations that ended each class. In 1965 Mick was posted to the RAAF base at Penang in Malaysia. Already becoming aware of the drama of ordinary life, Meryl found herself in a daily whirl of colour and ceremonial: processions, dancing, performers of all kinds. She also experienced co-education for the first time. Ballet continued with a very strict Chinese teacher; some of Meryl’s struggles here reappear in her role as Mepsie in her 1988 ballet Two Feet. Mepsie was her childhood nickname.

By 1968 Mick had been posted to RAAF Base Williamtown, near Newcastle. Meryl’s ballet lessons continued, with more strict discipline that found its way into Two Feet but also a growing certainty that this would be her future. She abandoned school in 1971 to study ballet full time in Sydney, making the daily 300km round trip to prepare for, and pass, the three most senior examinations of the Royal Academy of Dance.

Her father, impressed by her commitment, researched and started to build a ballet studio in their backyard at Raymond Terrace. He died of a heart attack before it was completed, but his RAAF colleagues finished the job and it was there that Meryl practised and later set up the Meryl Tankard School of Dancing.

After Mick’s early death Meryl grew closer to her mother, feeling responsible for helping her to cope; in turn Margot quietly and consistently supported her daughter. Meryl retained intensely personal memories of her parents that were translated into dance. Her first creative work in Canberra was VX18504 (Mick’s army service number), which not only examined the isolation of war but also reflected the differences in men’s and women’s ability to show emotion. Her 2003 production of Wild Swans featured an enormous book of fairy tales with the clear dedication “This book belongs to Margot”.

Mother and daughter moved to Melbourne in 1973, where Meryl spent her final two years of ballet training at the Australian Ballet School. She was recognised as “richly talented and intelligent” and was quick to learn not just new parts but how to fit in with a production. She was awarded an Australian Ballet Society Scholarship in 1974 and accepted a contract with the Ballet for its 1975 season. Her natural acting ability and innate expressiveness helped her rise above the routine corps de ballet work, as did her interest in fashion, design and creating things – even baking cakes for such luminaries as Robert Helpmann and Marilyn Jones. Her knitted pullovers were legendary.

In the late 1970s Meryl began developing an interest in choreography, initially for events such as hairdressing shows then in mid-1977 for a dance company. Birds Behind Bars was described as “what might happen if two Ocker roosters wandered into a performance of Swan Lake by the staff of a Brazilian brothel”, but it was a clear signal to Meryl’s future as a world-class choreographer.

Meryl was given an award by the Friends of the Australian Ballet that helped fund her first trip to Europe. Peggy van Praagh organised the itinerary, but part way through the trip Meryl was persuaded to visit Wuppertal, a small German town that was home to a highly theatrical dancer and choreographer, Pina Bausch. To Meryl, it was everything she had ever wanted; she auditioned successfully, was released from her contract with the Australian Ballet and in 1978 joined the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

At Wuppertal Meryl developed her comedic talents and above all absorbed the idiosyncratic methods Pina was using to encourage creativity. Meryl remained distinctively Australian, favouring the bright colours and short skirts of the period and eventually winning grudging admiration from Pina for her originality. She also learned to sing. Singing was integral to Bausch’s productions, and Meryl adopted the practice. In Canberra she had all her dancers learn to sing, particularly for her 1992 production Songs with Mara.

For six years Meryl was a leading soloist in the Tanztheater, but in 1982 Pina brought the company to Australia for the Adelaide Festival and Meryl discovered that she was homesick. She returned to Germany, however, starring in a 1983 film called Sydney an der Wupper before finally leaving the company in 1984.

Meryl worked as a freelance dancer in Australia and Europe, meanwhile developing her own choreography. She also worked with theatre companies, including Nimrod and Sydney Theatre Company. Work with the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) was eye-opening; unlike dancers, actors drew on their own emotions when they created movement. The experience was crucial when, needing to work with a permanent company again, she came to Canberra in 1989.

It was here that Meryl’s distinctive style crystallised in dance theatre. She used actors as well as dancers to create characterisation through movement. Australian themes and Canberra landscapes were combined with European dance traditions. She met photographer Régis Lansac and began to use his photographic and video projections in her productions. In four years she created nine performance pieces, made four overseas and six interstate tours, contributed to Floriade and Dance Week programs, worked with the National Gallery, visited schools and put on performances for the aged.

Being named Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1992 was both hail and farewell. News was leaked prematurely that she had been offered the post of Director of the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide, to be taken up before the end of her award year. It was a prestigious position and most of her dancers went with her, as did Régis who was by then her personal as well as professional partner. The Meryl Tankard Company had been created in 1989 from Canberra’s first professional dance company, the Human Veins Dance Theatre, and its success had encouraged several smaller dance companies, but with Meryl’s departure the driving force was gone.

Meryl’s six years in Adelaide were dogged with dissension and ended in very public acrimony in 1999, although her creative work continued unabated. In Furioso she introduced aerial choreography, an element that she employed again in Deep Sea Dreaming for the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony.

Since then Meryl has worked freelance, taking commissions from important dance companies around the world. In 2007 she blended a Japanese folk legend, Australia’s Taikoz drumming group and dancers to create Kaidan for the Sydney Festival. In 2009 Meryl studied film directing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where she made two short films. One of them, Mad, won Best Music Award at the Bondi Short Film Festival in 2010.

Perhaps her greatest work, The Oracle, was created in 2009 as a solo piece for Paul White, a truly extraordinary dancer. It is Meryl’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a fiendishly difficult composition that has defeated all but a handful of choreographers. It has toured to thunderous acclaim.

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1992 Canberra Citizen of the Year for her dedication to the arts community in Canberra and lifting the profile both nationally and internationally
  • 1993 Sydney Myer Music Award for Individual Achievement
  • 2001 Helpmann Award, jointly with Dan Potra, for costume design for the Sydney Olympic opening ceremony
  • 2002 Australian Dance Awards Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2003 Centenary Medal for contribution to Australian arts
  • 2004 Creative Fellowship Grant from the Australia Council to develop projects with composer Elena Kats-Chernin
  • 2010 Australian Dance Awards – Outstanding Choreography for The Oracle

Select Bibliography

‘Meryl Tankard’, viewed 8 February 2016, http://meryltankard.com/biography

1992 'GOOD TIMES THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES...', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 26 November, p. 17, viewed 20 December, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126957939

2012 Potter, Michelle, Meryl Tankard: an original voice, Canberra Dance writing and research

2014 ALL THE rite moves, The Advertiser, 9 August, viewed 8 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=1454923607816025595602831190245


See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.