Friday 29 July at 12:46 pm

The First Steps

Contemporary dance. Oft the butt of jokes and parodies. From obsessive floor rolling, head shaking and endless running in circles, the standard clichés of modern dance vocabulary have seeped into a national consciousness just as surely as rugby scrums and ‘yeah/nah’. Gags aside, the art form labelled modern, later, contemporary dance, has embedded itself into New Zealand culture since the 1940s. Why? At its core, as the newly-hatched New Zealand Dance Company proclaimed in 2012, dance is the ‘language of living’ and as such reflects ‘the body’s truth’. When others move, we are moved.

Connecting the steps from the past to the origins of the NZDC lands us in the mid-1940s, when Wellington’s New Dance Group presented dances on themes from modern life, including the monotony of factory work to the bombing of Hiroshima. Jump ahead to the early 1970s when John Casserly formed New Dance and we witness the first national tour of a local modern dance group, courtesy of the now-defunct New Zealand Students’ Arts Council. Following the lead of New Dance, Jamie Bull instigated Wellington’s Impulse Dance Theatre in 1975, while Susan Jordan founded Movement Theatre at the University of Auckland in 1976. And in 1977 Limbs Dance Company was born. Limbs changed the landscape and language of dance in Aotearoa and brought modern dance to large audiences enabling it to become an integral element of contemporary popular culture. Although other companies emerged in the wake of Limbs, notably Footnote in 1985, in the nineties Black Grace and Touch Compass and Atamira Dance Collective in 2000, these were predominately either part-time collectives, educationally focused, training grounds, culturally centred or ‘pick-up’ companies, meaning dancers were hired per production only.

The idea of forming a new, national contemporary dance company based in Tamaki Makaurau began to foment in late 2009 when Shona McCullagh and Frances Turner met to strategize the development of this creative endeavour. Shona, a graduate of the New Zealand School of Dance, former member of Limbs and Douglas Wright Dance companies, NZ Arts Laureate and dance filmmaker, and Frances, General Manager of Tempo Dance Festival and corporate manager, combined their business nous, networking skills, marketing and promotion experience with their passion for dance to set down a plan on how to birth this vital but risky enterprise. McCullagh and Turner believed that the time was right for a new, national contemporary dance company. Through hours, weeks and months of planning, by 2010 McCullagh and Turner outlined their mission to create a sustainable, full-time, high-calibre dance company, with an Auckland home that contributes to the fabric of NZ culture and is dedicated to NZ’s finest contemporary dance practitioners.

From the very beginning the idea that this would be a dance company by and for New Zealanders first and foremost was central. Jotting down initial ideas in a notebook, one of McCullagh’s key aims was to ‘develop a taste for New Zealand work nationally and internationally.’ Alongside providing a platform for local dancers and choreographers, who at this time almost uniformly had to travel and live overseas if they aspired to a sustained professional career, the new company aimed to ‘change the way audiences experience contemporary dance…we are creating a community that strengthens dance in this country.’ As McCullagh points out ‘I wanted to do something to make sure that the future of dance in this country was more secure. That the amazing talent and potential we have here, isn’t lost to other international companies ...or just lost.’

Veteran New Zealand choreographer Michael Parmenter expressed his enthusiasm for this new venture stating ‘…here is an opportunity to move our dance culture in New Zealand forward into a new level of maturity and accomplishment. We have been waiting for such an opportunity for some time.’ In 2011, with Dolina Wehipeihana as producer and Megan Adams as rehearsal director, the New Zealand Dance Company offers a preview performance of works covering the gamut from solos, duets and group works, reflecting a range of styles. ‘What I experienced last night deeply connected me to what we are capable of as humans’ an audience member commented, concluding ‘we need this in our lives.’

The official premiere of the New Zealand Dance Company took place August 10th and 11th 2012, at the Aotea Centre. The programme featured works by Shona McCullagh, Sarah Foster-Sproull, Michael Parmenter, Justin Haiu, Tipua Tigafua, with a special choreographic ‘gift’ from world renowned Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker danced by New Zealander Ursula Robb. The other dancers in the inaugural company were Craig Bary, Sarah Foster-Sproull, Justin Haiu, Alex Leonhartsberger, Tupua Tigafua, Hannah Tasker-Poland and Lucy Lynch. The reviews confirmed that this company indeed accomplished what McCullagh and Turner envisioned all those years prior when they first dreamt of creating a new national dance company.

"The New Zealand Dance Company has begun with a new starting point from which they can and will now be judged: as all dance artists do, they exist to reflect New Zealand’s people, place and identity, to sing with their bodies and be a hotbed of creativity and a safe place for the bravery that inspires us, and the audience."

Jack Gray, Theatreview, 11 August, 2012

"In her inaugural launch programme for the newly formed New Zealand Dance Company, Artistic Director Shona McCullagh is mapping out a manifesto for the future. It becomes immediately apparent that this company will be performing dance of the present day – embedded in the technologies that inform our life – to the extent that they influence our movement patterning and contribute to our everyday “language of living”. This form will undoubtedly become a new vernacular of dance; moving the company forward in challenging directions, while creating a distinctive blueprint for what might constitute contemporary dance in years to come."

Jenny Stevenson, DANZ Quarterly, Spring 2012.

In 2012 Shona wrote, ‘we have the uncanny knack of producing powerful, courageous, and dangerously beautiful dancers here in New Zealand.’

This was as true then as it is now.

by Dr. Marianne Schultz