Australian Dance Theater’s ‘Birdbrain’ a fresh spin on classic


Garry Stewart, the artistic director of the Australian Dance Theater since 1999, thinks outside the tutu.

“As a choreographer,” Stewart said, “I became somewhat frustrated with what was possible with the conventionally trained dancer. I started thinking about, well, what kinds of movement am I inspired by, and what kind of movement really presses my buttons?”

It turns out Stewart’s buttons are pressed by a fusion of gymnastics, breakdance, yoga, contortionism, martial arts, contemporary dance and classical ballet. Audiences are invigorated as well.

“They leave hyped up because the works are really a wall of movement,” Stewart said.

La Jollans will have the chance to experience the adrenaline rush when “Birdbrain,” the Australian Dance Theater’s “cygneture” work, comes to UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium on Friday, April 15.

“Birdbrain” deconstructs the narrative of “Swan Lake” in a light-hearted, yet reverent manner. It is not a modern version of the ballet. There is no linear narrative. Tchaikovsky is quickly replaced with edgy techno.

“It’s lifted out of its lyricism,” Stewart said, “and placed somewhere a bit more brutal.”

Using the “Romeo and Juliet” of ballet, Stewart aims to highlight ironies and idiosyncrasies of ballet culture using wit and juxtaposition. For example, he addresses the conflict between high art vs. low art by using techno instead of classical music and mixing breakdance with pas de bourres.

Stewart also criticizes the classical ballet practice of reducing emotions by dancing the same steps with either great gusto or despair.

“The emotionalism is laid on top as a superficial afterthought,” he said.

To mimic this reduction, words such as “peasant joy,” “royal disdain,” and “lust and despair” are written on T-shirts worn by the dancers. Other shirts indicate characters and locations. These shirts aid the audience, especially those who are not familiar with the original story, to follow along.

Stewart also delves into the history of “Swan Lake” using video that is played on large screens behind the dancers.

“It just offers other textures and ambiances that is placed in juxtaposition to the choreography,” Stewart said. “That really allows the audience to then create a meaning out of the combination of the visual of the video and the dancing as one new entity.”

Martin Wollesen, artistic director of ArtPower! at UCSD, explained that the T-shirts and video elements Stewart incorporates will be attractive to younger audiences.

“He has a style that I think really borrows from the quick flash imagery of an MTV generation,” he said, “where these images and these moments come up that are really striking and last and move on and are very engaging.”

The most impressive part of the performance is the physical ability of the dancers.

“What he does,” said Anton, who has danced with the theater since 2000, “just for an example, it could be pirouette into a flip horizontally across stage down into a yoga move that is quite extreme