When she was three years old, a family friend asked Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman what she wanted to do when she grew up.
She immediately replied: “I am a dancer”.
“At three, I knew that I was a dancer,” Dalman says from her home near Lake George, NSW. “It’s one of my very first memories.
“And look here we are 80 years later, and that’s what I have done all my life.”
The world-renowned choreographer, who established the Australian Dance Theatre in her birthplace of Adelaide in 1965 and received the Order of Australia in 1995 for her contribution to contemporary dance, is still dancing.
For the past four years she has performed in Irish dance theatre company Teac Damsa’s wild re-imagining of Swan Lake, which visits the Heath Ledger Theatre for the Perth Festival.
Dalman plays Nancy, the mother of Prince Siegfried, who is no longer royalty in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version but the scion of a poor, working-class family in the Ireland’s Midlands.
That’s not all that’s been turned upside down. Rather than Tchaikovsky, the score is now provided by Dublin experimental folk outfit Slow Moving Clouds.
Dalman thought Keegan-Dolan may have gone too far when she heard about his radical remake of one of the world’s most famous ballets.
“Michael sent me the script and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so dark. How is that going to work out’,” she says. “At the same time I was very intrigued … I was fascinated in the way he was bringing a really ancient myth into a very contemporary message.”
Dalman describes Teac Damsa’s Swan Lake as “deeply Irish” thanks to the new setting and Slow Moving Cloud’s modern folk music.
But, after performing throughout Europe, Asia, New Zealand and North America since 2015, she has seen audiences everywhere connect.
“Even in Moscow, in Russia, people loved it,” Dalman explains. “That’s the home of the traditional Swan Lake and we had standing ovations from the audiences there.
“Audiences everywhere we go, they just love it,” she adds. “It’s an extraordinary production that manages to touch a chord with people. It doesn’t matter what culture or language.”
The elephant-sized swan in the room is, of course, how an octogenarian Australian dance legend ended up performing a Russian classic with an Irish ensemble.
“At my age, why would I want to audition for a company on the other side of the world,” Dalman laughs. “A couple of years ago, I decided that if I wanted to keep performing I needed to explore more acting … and be able to use my movement background and dance skills, but in a different form.”
She was “perfectly honest” with Keegan-Dolan when she applied for the role, which sees her on-stage throughout the performance.
“I said, ‘I’m 20 years older than the woman you’re looking for, I live on the other side of the world and I’m only just beginning to start an acting career’.
“Michael, of course, did some research about me and my experience and then after a few weeks he rang me back and said, ‘Yes, we want you’.
“I got on a plane and flew to Ireland. That’s history now, we’ve been touring for four years.”
Speaking of history, one of Dalman’s very first dance gigs was with a Dutch ballet company performing Swan Lake at night and washing windows in Amsterdam during the day.
She describes the experience as incredibly eye-opening for a 22-year-old lass from Adelaide, who had only left home the previous year.
“I’m talking the 1950s,” Dalman says. “Late 1950s, I might say.”
Sixty years later, she may not be pirouetting like she did in Amsterdam, but the iconoclast is now determined to prove that dance is not just for “young people with beautiful, lithe bodies”.
“I’m often in the position where I’m pushing boundaries,” Dalman says. “I’m pushing into new horizons and I guess it’s just where I am in my own journey, professionally and life-wise.
“Yeah, I want to try acting. I want to challenge myself again.
“I want for the dance profession and for younger dancers who are coming along to see that it is possible to still keep going for your whole life.”
At three, I knew that I was a dancer … and look here we are 80 years later, and that’s what I have done all my life.
The remarkable Dalman runs a choreography centre out of her home, is artistic director of the Mirramu Dance Company in Lake George and recently travelled to Taipei to create a new work with a Taiwanese dance company in between runs of Swan Lake in Dublin and Hong Kong.
Recently in Perth to perform opposite actor George Shevstov in the intimate dance theatre production Dust on the Shortbread, Dalman also completed a PhD from the University of Western Sydney in 2011.
Her life, and her ever evolving body of work, serves as an example to others.
Dalman hopes to “inspire people, not necessarily to take up an acting career, but to keep going in whatever they’re doing and not just shut down because you hit 80.”
Swan Lake is at the Heath Ledger Theatre from February 14-17. Visit perthfestival.com.au for tickets.