A version of this review appeared in The Age, April 12, 2012.
Born in Germany, the gifted dancer and choreographer Tanja Liedtke was a citizen of the world who made Australia her home; she was about to take up the position of artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company – at the age of just 29 – when she was killed in a road accident in 2007.
Watching this tribute by Liedtke's friends Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde, I thought of Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard, another recent Australian documentary dedicated to an artist who died much too young. Just as the dreamy, digressive form of Autoluminescent matched the spirit of Howard's music, Mason and Hyde have set out to make a film with some of the rigour and clarity Liedtke demanded of herself and her creative team.
Life In Movement is neither a straight biography of Liedtke, a pure “dance film” in the vein of Wim Wenders' Pina, nor a critical study of its subject's achievement. Though a montage of newspaper headlines testifies to acclaim for her work, there's no attempt to show how she fits into any particular artistic tradition. Rather, it's a close-up, behind-the-scenes account of what it was like to collaborate with Liedtke, structured in part around a tour of Europe undertaken by her associates shortly after her death.
In general, Mason and Hyde have chosen to show brief, striking moments from Liedtke's productions, rather than longer extracts. It's enough to give us the sense of a highly theatrical sort of dance, stylising everyday forms of psychological discomfort – entrapment, isolation, forced proximity – in a manner that veers from sinister to slapstick. The film's special deftness and density comes from the suggestive yet open-ended way these snippets are mixed in with other kinds of material: interviews, rehearsal footage, videos shot by Liedtke for her own use where she tried out ideas as a painter might sketch in a notebook.
There are some wonderfully revealing clips of the young Liedtke clowning for her friends at her English boarding school: precise cutting allows us to see the continuity between the poised adult and the frantic, giggly teenager, rushing down corridors and dressing up in different wigs. On the one hand, the film is an energising portrait of an creator who found her calling early and was able to inspire many of those around her. On the other, it's very simply an act of mourning, one that will strike a chord with anyone who has experienced sudden grief.