Michelle’s Story, a film by Meryl Tankard

In 2011 the Brisbane Festival program included the celebrated Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B with Out of Context – for Pina, a tribute to the towering choreographer who died in 2009. Australian dancer Michelle Ryan was invited by artistic director Alain Platel to appear as a guest artist and although she had formerly had an important career with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, Ryan was surprised to be asked.

She was also tentative about accepting. Ryan had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 and her mobility was affected. She told Platel she was afraid she might fall. He suggested that if that were to happen, she should just get up again. It was the perfect answer; she did the show. Despite her restrictions and her fears, Ryan was still a dancer.

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Michelle Ryan with Vincent Crowley in Michelle’s Story

Ryan recalls the conversation she had with Platel in a half-hour documentary, Michelle’s Story, which was directed by Tankard and shown this week in competition at the 25th Flickerfest International Short Film Festival (Michelle’s Story was also shown at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival where it was judged the most popular short.) The Platel anecdote is a brief one but particularly telling. Ryan speaks in a conversational tone but a tough subtext is there: the anxiety that accompanies a serious illness, the grief that comes with the loss of physical prowess and the level of determination required to keep going.

Despite setbacks that would challenge anyone, Ryan, in her mid-40s, has not retreated. She is now artistic director at Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre, a company that includes dancers with varied physical and intellectual abilities.

Ryan was only 30 when she received her diagnosis – a terrible blow for any young woman but particularly cruel for a dancer. Her personal life suffered too. We see footage of Ryan carefully making her way towards her husband-to-be and their wedding celebrant, she looking radiant despite her physical insecurity. The marriage, to fellow ADT member Gavin Webber, didn’t survive and it is a measure of Tankard’s sympathetic understanding that he was prepared to appear on camera.

The blunt facts – exceptionally beautiful and talented young dancer loses the use of her legs and also loses her husband – are handled with great tact. While Ryan’s illness is the event around which Michelle’s Story revolves, Tankard has made from it a beautifully restrained and understated film about resilience.

Michelle’s Story will be shown during Flickerfest’s national tour (until May) and screens on ABC TV in early March.

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