The most poignant moments in Life in Movement, the universally-praised documentary that reflects upon the life and legacy of Tanja Liedtke, occur when her colleagues, friends and family recall the moment they heard of her passing. Having just been named the Sydney Dance Company's youngest ever creative director, the 29 year-old was struck by a garbage truck whilst exercising on Sydney's lower north shore early on the morning of August 17, 2007.
Bryan Mason, who co-directed the film with Sophie Hyde, was a close friend of the German-born choreographer and, when asked by SBS Film to similarly recall the moment he learnt of Tanja's death, was as forthcoming as the subjects in his film. “I was driving home and [Sophie] and I were expecting a call from someone we didn't know, so the call came through with just a number, not a name,” he details. “When the call came it wasn't from who we were expecting but from Josh Tyler, a performer who had worked with Tanja, and he just bluntly told me the news.”
Mason pushed on through the day, staying focussed on his professional commitments, until they were able to stop and fully comprehend their loss; they gathered that night at a pub in Adelaide and shared their disbelief and sadness with other friends of Tanja. “It was one of those moments where your perception of the world shifts,” he says. “Tanja had the potential to bring enormous change to the arts world in Australia and then to hear of the accident...well, it just doesn't make sense. When someone dies, someone close, it feels so finite. It makes you feel so useless, because there is nothing you can do about it.”
Mason and Hyde had known Liedtke and her partner, Solon Ulrich, from their time in Canberra, and they had already commenced filming her unique style of physical storytelling, and the often torturous creative process behind it. After her death, Mason discovered that, like many of those he captures on camera for Life in Movement, he drew inspiration from her boundless passion; he recalls being consumed by a pronounced artistic focus in the wake of his loss.
“We knew we wanted to make a film that stood up to her standards,” Mason says of Life in Movement, which changed considerably from its original purpose: a chronicle of Liedtke's debut choreographic work, 'Twelfth Night'. Much of that original footage is used in the film, along with Liedtke's own images of herself developing her craft.
“Tanja was an incredibly focussed, dedicated, determined artist who was quite obsessed with her work, very rigourous and 'full-on'. But the other side was that she was a lovely, personable friend, very giving in social settings and always had time for her family and friends. The more people we interviewed, the more both of those (aspects of her) became really clear.”
For Mason, the film was always about the artist and her work. “My first impulse was to show the great work Tanja had done and to tell her personal story,” he says. But the opportunity that his camera presented for many of her collaborators to reflect, often with wrenching insight, took Mason's narrative into unexpected directions. “The further we got into the film, it became more of a story of grief. It became the story of the dancers who were taking Tanja's work back on a world tour, without their leader, as it were. Sophie was really interested in that story, so we ended combining both those things.”
Mason is in the midst of a filmic love affair with the creative spirit. In addition to Life in Movement, 2011 saw him employed as cinematographer by director Matthew Bates on two works that celebrate artistic vision – the non-fiction short Stunt Love, an ode to the fearless daring of stuntman JP McGowan; and the cult-doco hit Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (which he also produced and edited). “There is a lot of stuff in the world that is quite forgettable and occasionally you see stuff which is inspirational and you take something from it,” he muses. “I guess we are trying to make films that have subjects that we are interested in as well, so that you are not just doing it for a job. You are doing it because it is something that you care about and if you can get that across in your films, that's great.”
It is an attitude that infuses Life in Movement and Mason freely acknowledges that the fierce dedication and spirit of Tanja Liedtke influenced all aspects of the production. “We definitely tried to match the style of her shows,” he admits, referencing the jerky jump cuts and often jarring use of lighting and editing to simulate Liedtke's extraordinary contortions. “But, perhaps moreso, we wanted to reflect the content of her shows.”
He points to her landmark work 'Construct' and its representation in Life in Movement as arguably the most successful melding of the artist, her talent and his film. “She had just taken the job at Sydney Dance, and what had come with that was the pressure, of wanting to rise to the challenge, of being (so) nervous. The content of 'Construct' completely reflected her headspace at the time and we really took our cues from that, having the film reflect that as well.”