The great misnomer that “everything is online” revealed to me once again how flawed an assumption it is about a year ago when I was thinking through my earliest memories of Australian women filmmakers. I feel I have a fairly solid handle on this subject when it comes to the 1980s and 1990s: I’ve read the books, scoured the archives, done the reading and – where available – the prerequisite watching. Jane Campion, for example, began her career with a handful of shorts, kicking things off in earnest with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) television movie Two Friends in 1986, produced by her long-time collaborator Jan Chapman. The two would form one of the most productive relationships in Australian screen industry, resulting in films including Holy Smoke (1999), Bright Star (2009) and of course The Piano (1993), the latter rendering Campion still the only woman to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Rarely mentioned and frequently ignored, however, is Campion and Chapman’s debut project together: an episode of the short-lived ABC television series Dancing Daze earlier in 1986. So invisible has this become that if it wasn’t for a small dead-end reference on IMDb, Campion’s first mainstream effort as director, I could have almost assumed I’d imagined it existed at all.1 There’s a couple of songs from the soundtrack on YouTube, a few vague references to it on random blogs and small mentions of it in newspaper articles online, but otherwise: nothing. Digging into the large although broadly ignored offline archive (“libraries”, if you like), it was with some relief that my dim memories of Dancing Daze proved to be grounded in reality. I was young when it first aired on the ABC early in 1986 in the 7.30pm Sunday night time slot. Too young, perhaps, but old enough to have just reached the point where liking things my mother deemed inappropriate was in itself an automatic validation of its significance, stumbling my way towards the formation of an individual identity.
I was not yet of the age where I could rebel as such, and although Mum wasn’t thrilled with me watching Dancing Daze because of its proximity to the series whose success it clearly aimed to mimic (another Chapman-produced youth-oriented musical drama series, Sweet and Sour), she let me anyway, choosing her battles as parents do. In retrospect, aside from an overzealous affection for melodrama, the fetishisation of Fairlight synths and its garish neon colour palette, I’m not sure quite why my mother was so against Sweet and Sour; perhaps she simply wanted a few more years of Romper Room, Play School and Sesame Street. But while I experienced a frisson of excitement watching Sweet and Sour and its songs of magical, obscure, grown-up things, it was Dancing Daze where I truly drank my first tentative sip from the cup of pre-adolescent Kool-Aid.
While Sweet and Sour’s place as an iconic 80s Australian cult pop culture phenomena is firmly established, Dancing Daze has for all intents and purposes simply vanished. A number of attempts to source the series has come up empty handed, and there are whispers that it is highly likely to remain unattainable due to a complex web of copyright clearance complications. So all I have for now at least is my memories – hazy, distant, and framed through the admittedly heavily distorted lens of childhood nostalgia – and the small handful of newspaper and magazine articles and interviews that remain.
Reading back, here’s what I have cobbled together about the broader plot:2 Dancing Daze followed the story of two sisters Phoebe (Meryl Tankard) and Kate (Patsy Stephen), who move to Sydney to pursue their dreams of becoming famous dancers. They grew up in the regional New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga, raised by their aunt and uncle on a pig farm after the mysterious disappearance of their mother (herself an entertainer). With big dreams and little grasp of the realities of life in the “big smoke”, they find themselves developing a community of new friends centred around the Casanova Club, the place to be in the swinging sixties but now neglected and reduced to near-ruins. With their friend Joe (Laurence Clifford) and piecing together the disappearance of their mother through the backstory of the shady Mr Isaacs (Norman Kaye), the girls discover as much about their past as they do their future on their journey towards fame and fortune.
Shot in the ABC Studios and on location in Sydney3 and costing approximately $250,000 to make,4 each episode ran for approximately fifty minutes. Devised by Chapman and writer Michael Cove, Chapman brought choreographer Chrissie Koltai on board who, despite having no television experience, was a member of the Sydney Dance Company, had taught at both Sydney’s esteemed National Institute of Dramatic Art and the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, and was the choreographer for the Divinyls’ “Pleasure and Pain” music video the previous year.5 The series’ music director was Martin Armitage, who had worked with Chapman on Sweet and Sour, and who was a successful music producer in his own right as well as one-time guitarist of seminal Australian rock band The Sports. Music for the Dancing Daze rock soundtrackincluded artists like Sharon O’Neill, Jenny Morris, Steven Cummings (also from The Sports), and one-time Beach Boys member Ricky Fataar.6
If there was one big name involved in Dancing Daze, however, it was dancer Meryl Tankard in the role of Phoebe. Born in Darwin and raised in Melbourne, Newcastle, and Penang, Tankard joined the Australian Ballet School in 1973 and joined the company in 1977. After a three-hour audition, she became a soloist with the legendary Wuppertaler Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, a figure memorialised in Wim Wenders 2001 documentary Pina. Tankard remained a key figure in the group for six years, during which time she also starred and co-directed with Bettina Woernie in the film Sydney on the River Wupper (1983). Homesick, Tankard returned to Australia in 1984, beginning work on Dancing Daze shortly after.7 “The whole story of Dancing Daze is very close to home for me”, Tankard told Katherine Tulich in an interview for Countdown Magazine. “When I came back to Australia from Germany, I was trying to find something to fit into. The only way to do that is to do it myself, which is exactly what the Green Sisters do.” She continues, “More people know me overseas than here […] most people don’t know who Pina Bausch is, so it’s like starting again.”8
Today, of course, it is Campion’s name that leaps most immediately from the Dancing Daze credits. That single IMDb listing has sparked wild speculation on the centrality of her role, Mark Lawson at The Guardian stating emphatically that early in her career Campion was “an unknown young New Zealander […] in charge of a show called Dancing Daze”.9 While not wholly untrue – Campion is originally from New Zealand, although she moved to London in the mid-1970s and graduated from the University of Sydney in 1981 – the suggestion that she was “in charge” of Dancing Daze is misrepresentative. While certainly still young, she had made a number of shorts in previous years, and it is hardly the case that Campion got off the boat from New Zealand and was magically gifted authorial control of an entire prime-time ABC television series.
Of the six episodes, Campion directed one, and has since noted that while not necessarily her proudest career moment, she learned a great deal from the experience in practical terms. In an interview with Michel Ciment, she says:
It was a commission, light entertainment for television. I was in the process of writing a project for a television series on the New Zealander writer Janet Frame10 and I wanted to know what it was like to work for television. It was an interesting experience, even though I don’t care much for the film. However, it allowed me to meet Jan Chapman, who later produced Two Friends. I was obliged to work fast and to make a fifty-minute film in seven days with song and dance numbers […] I had to be visually inventive, which amused me and gave me confidence that I could do commercial films.11
As Campion describes it, the concept was fairly straightforward: “It was the classic story of a group of young people who, in 1986, want to make a dance troupe”,12 a description mirrored by many critics at the time of its broadcast. Paul Kalina, for example, noted that like Sweet and Sour, Dancing Daze “celebrates the trials of youth pursuing its ambitions and realizing goals that, previously, were only dreamt of”.13 But it was precisely how Dancing Daze brought this to life that impressed other critics and that resonates so profoundly with me personally on this strange little journey of recollection. Barbara Hooks describes the series’ opening scene (one I either vaguely remember or have simply conjured up via wishful thinking) where we first meet Phoebe and Kate “as ankle biters on their aunt and uncle’s farm giving an impromptu concert to anyone who will watch, including a piglet.”14 The fairy tale quality of descriptions like this – Kalina even calls it “essential ‘wish-upon-a-star’ stuff”15 – make it clear why it would have appealed to me as a child. But perhaps there was just something more simply about its very energy that I tapped into as a kid: as Hooks put it, “Dancing Daze is, in the parlance of the young, an ‘ace’ show.”16
In retrospect, this “aceness” had a fundamentally gendered quality. In her enthusiastic review, Susan Molly pegged that the secret to its success was that “Dancing Daze has slotted into the 80s mood of fun, happy endings and fantasy adventure as much as Madonna did when swishing round in that Girls’ Own Annual Desperately Seeking Susan, or as Cyndi Lauper did when she sang ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’.”17 Shirley Laplanche at The Australian drew direct parallels between Phoebe and Kate’s fictional aspirations and the real-world struggles of Chapman and Kolati in particular to fulfil their professional ambitions at a time when such goals were hardly the norm for women of their generation: “They grew up like so many women of their era without a career, without direction, guided by teachers and family towards marriage and babies”. In an interview with Laplanche, Chapman’s insight is fascinating and resounds with extraordinary poignancy in terms of the discourse surrounding women’s filmmaking today:
I think women are interested in relationships, in the way people deal with each other and in the psychological motivation behind people’s actions. Fortunately, drama is a way of exploring these things and they are an important part of three telemovies which I am working on for the ABC.
Of these projects, Chapman adds:
One looks into the lives of two girls who form a deep friendship during puberty. The film follows their lives through marriage and divorce and shows how much they need this close friendship.18
Although not mentioning Campion by name, this telemovie is clearly Two Friends, a film recently described by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster as a “tour de force” and “one of Campion’s most heartfelt and feminist films”.19
I can make no such claims for the Campion episode of Dancing Daze simply because I don’t remember it. The image I recall most strongly of watching the series as a child is that of two young women in explosively frothy 80s tulle frocks leaning on a tree in a Sydney park, dreaming of becoming famous dancers, and declaring in delighted, determined unison: “fortune favours the bold!”. As I dug through the archives, more memories came to the fore, but in large part this was simply only the vaguest of bells ringing rather than any real concrete, tangible recollection as such. But the mark was made, something in my mind clicked, and sound, colour, and movement began to be understood in my fledgling cinephile mind in new ways. Forgotten as it may be, Dancing Daze also consolidated the professional collaboration between Campion and Chapman, which spawned some of the most important and enduring Australian films ever made through the sheer force of their joint will. Eradicated as they may be from the Australian popular imagination, Kate and Phoebe were ultimately proven right: fortune favours the bold.
The author of this piece would like to thank the AFI Research Collection for their invaluable assistance in sourcing the essential research material necessary to write it.
- As Lisa French notes in her excellent review on two books on Jane Campion from 2007, “research into female authorship in the cinema was a neglected area in cinema studies until the 1990s”. See: “Passionate Encounters with Jane Campion’s ‘Cinematic Consciousness’: Jane Campion by Kathleen McHugh and The Piano by Gail Jones”, Senses of Cinema 44 (October 2007), sensesofcinema.com/2007/book-reviews/jane-campion-piano/ ↩
- Sourced from: Barbara Hooks, “Aunty Innovates with Song and Dance Show”, The Age, 14 February 1986, np.; Susan Molloy, “Halcyon Daze”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 1986 np.; David Baird, “Dizzy Blend in Dancing Daze”, The Sun, 14 February 1986; Paul Kalina, “Fiddlers on the Hoof”, Cinema Papers 57 (May 1986), p. 86. ↩
- “Facts and Figures”, Cinema Papers 53 (September 1985), p. 47 ↩
- Molloy, “Halcyon Daze”, op. cit. ↩
- Shirley Laplanche, “Musical Drama Mirrors Life on the Small Screen”, The Australian, 28 February 1986, n.p. ↩
- “Facts and Figures”, op. cit. Two soundtracks were released – a rock soundtrack and a musical soundtrack, both through ABC Records. ↩
- After Dancing Daze, despite having left Bausch’s company, Tankard still appeared as a guest dancer across the following years, until she formed her own company in Canberra in 1989, later moving to Adelaide to become the Artistic Director of the Adelaide Dance Theatre from 1993 to 1999. She has worked widely as a choreographer, including for the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2000, and has been heavily awarded. In 2005, she was the choreographer for Ana Kokkinos’s The Book of Revelation, and in 2010 she studied film directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney. She is currently working on a feature film screenplay. See http://meryltankard.com/biography ↩
- Katherine Tulich, “Dancing Daze”, Countdown Magazine (March 1986), pp. 74-75. ↩
- Mark Lawson, “Crisis in Six Scenes: Why Woody Allen’s TV Sitcom is a Failure”, The Guardian, 5 October 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/05/woody-allen-tv-sitcom-crisis-in-six-scenes ↩
- Initially made as a television mini-series, this would become Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table. See Isabella McNeill, “An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)”, Senses of Cinema 84 (September 2017), sensesofcinema.com/2017/cteq/an-angel-at-my-table/ ↩
- Michel Ciment, “Interviews with Jane Campion”, in Jane Campion, ed. Kathleen McHugh (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 149. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Kalina, “Fiddlers on the Hoof”, p. 86 ↩
- Hooks, “Aunty innovates”, op. cit. ↩
- Kalina, “Fiddlers on the Hoof”, op. cit., p. 86. ↩
- Hooks, “Aunty innovates”, op. cit. ↩
- Molloy, “Halcyon Daze”, op. cit. ↩
- Laplanche, “Musical drama”, op. cit. ↩
- Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “Girlhood in Reverse – Jane Campion’s 2 Friends (1986)”, Senses of Cinema 84 (September 2017), sensesofcinema.com/2017/cteq/2-friends/ ↩