National Library of Australia Fellowships provide an opportunity for researchers to explore the Library’s collection, blissfully uninterrupted, for up to 12 weeks. Generous donors enable us to offer National Library Fellowships each year.

Dr Maggie Tonkin was the last of our 2018 National Library Fellows to take up residence in the Library, supported by Mr Ryan Stokes. 

Dr Tonkin is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide, where she researches in the areas of literary studies and dance. Her research into the creative practice of Meryl Tankard follows on from the research she did on Tankard's tenure as artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre (1993-99), for her book FIFTY: Half a Century of Australian Dance Theatre (Wakefield, 2016). 

In this blog, Dr Tonkin shares insights found in Meryl Tankard's extensive papers and interviews with Tankard and her creative collaboratorsShe writes:

Meryl Tankard’s career spans dance theatre, film, opera, theatre, TV and fashion, commercial theatre, and creating large scale public events including the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. Her works are notable for their distinctive and unique movement vocabularies, use of space and visual richness, their humour and emotional impact. My research in Tankard’s NLA papers focused on exploring how she creates each distinct movement vocabulary in the studio, and her input into the design of her works, in collaboration with her long time partner and collaborator, visual artist and photographer Régis Lansac.

Portrait of Meryl Tankard

Lansac, Regis.  (1994).  Meryl Tankard, at Leverkusen, June 1994,

Here I want to share some of what I found out about Tankard’s creative process in crafting movement in the studio, and I’ll draw on the creation of her most famous work, Furioso, to illustrate my findings . It is already on public record that Tankard creates movement collaboratively with her dancers by setting them tasks and asking them to respond to questions, selecting passages from the material the dancers come up with, and then combining, editing and altering them until she has crafted a movement language that suits what she wants to express. Tankard never solicits actual dance steps, but always seeks pedestrian or everyday movement that she can use as raw material.

Her working notebooks for Furioso reveal how this works in practice.  The papers reveal that she asked the dancers to show her the following:

  • 6 different handicrafts or aspects of the same handicraft
  • 6 things you might do in a plague
  • 6 ways you might fight your way through the jungle
  • 6 things you might do if you are rapidly losing something you love
  • 6 ways to hold up the sky
  • 6 different positions using your hands and feet to hold up a wall

Dancers performing on stage

Lansac, Regis.  (1995).  Grayson Millwood and Mia Mason in Furioso, Canberra Theatre, October 1995,

Tankard then lists, and in some cases describes, the material the dancers come up with. For instance, in response to the task ‘6 things you might do in a plague’, the following are listed:

  • Grayson: Waving away bees
  • Shaun: Ducking hornets
  • Vincent :Mouse running up back of coat
  • Grayson: Fire Hose
  • Vincent :Rescue a baby
  • Vincent: Slamming rats with a shovel

Entries in the notebooks detail how she works through the material, and the pages and pages devoted to this process reveal just how painstaking and methodical it is, often lasting many weeks and involving much patient working through of combinations and variations.

From a research point of view, among the most unexpected and rewarding finds among Tankard’s papers were the notes written by the dancers themselves, which were written either during the creative process or when the work was set at the completion of the process. What these document is not only how the dancers’ responses to the set tasks contribute to the making of the work, but how they remain active motivators of the movement in performance. Thus we see that written into the notes for the ‘Fire Hose’ section of the Plague Dance:

"The force of the water forces the hose in your right hand to shoot straight up and over your right shoulder and down behind your back…your body follows your hand, and you spring around to face it. Hose pointing straight down into the ground (facing USP corner). Right hand moves up and down again as if hosing up and down a fiery post in front of you."

In some cases the archive also contains detailed written responses from the dancers documenting how these tasks inform their individual performances. Here’s another example from Furioso:

"Thru the whole avalanche dance, you feel like you are trying with all your might to save people that are utterly precious to you. Fighting through the jungle to get to people, but there is a feeling of panic because you are scared that you will miss someone. I really used to imagine that I was in a jungle with streams and rocks and vines.

When we made this I was really worried about losing my lover and I was also worried that Doug would die while I was over here. So I think that anxiousness seeped through."

Furioso is thus a good example of how the tasks that Tankard sets as part of the process of creation continue to motivate the work in performance, and her archive contains equivalent material about the creation of many of her other works. However, her papers do not reveal how she comes up with the questions and tasks in the first place, nor how she decides that the material generated by the dancers is what she is looking for. One of the lessons I’ve drawn from researching Tankard’s creative process is that her papers can only tell us so much, and that, ultimately, while her process in the studio is well documented, this documentation does not completely reveal the intangibles of the creative process.