Auckland Arts Festival: Moving Wright along

Bernadette Rae talks to the man many consider the guru of New Zealand dance, master choreographer Douglas Wright.

Douglas Wright says some things can be expressed only in movement. Photo / Supplied
Douglas Wright says some things can be expressed only in movement. Photo / Supplied

At the far end of Unitec's dance Studio One stands an enigmatic grey wall, gently etched with the patterns of concrete and a scrawl of not-quite-decipherable words. A set piece. Around the immediate walls lies a jumble of dancers' paraphernalia - bags, water bottles, discarded sweat tops - and the contorting body of Kelly Nash, repeating leg lifts, stomach curls and split hip manoeuvres.

"I need to get stronger," she whispers of her workout, squeezed into precious minutes when a segment of work which does not involve her directly is being punched and leaped and slid and caressed into form, above her.

On a chair at the designated "front" sits master choreographer Douglas Wright, author of searing autobiographies, accomplished poet, New Zealand Arts Laureate and, in his time, unquestionably our finest ever contemporary dancer. Twenty years of living with the HIV virus have stripped his frame of its former powers.

Now his clothes seem a little too large, and the body they conceal is unquestionably frail. He is making this new work, rapt - commissioned by the Auckland Arts Festival as the dark jewel in its dancing crown - from his chair. Mostly.

It may be his last major choreography - though we have heard that before. Wright is just 54 years old but claims the immune system of an 80-year-old. So he is meteing out his physical energy in half days. He arrives at the studio mid morning and works three hours, full-on, then breaks for lunch, dancers sprawled across the lobby floor, sweaty and mostly silent, with brown packets of sandwiches, cups of instant noodles, left-overs, coffee.

Wright works for perhaps another hour in the afternoon and then retreats, to rest at home, with his cacti and books, endless books, his beloved cat Alice Thumb, his thoughts and his far-from-compromised creative urges and visions, that constantly come, he says, uninvited, unwelcomed, to taunt and to haunt him.

"I don't really see how I will be able to carry on after this." Defiantly chain-smoking. Then, "making dance is the only thing that brings me happiness".

Rehearsal director Megan Adams takes over in the afternoon to practise and polish the new work. It seems like a huge job, daunting, but Adams looks not a bit fazed to be at the right hand of the "creative iconoclast". She is tuned-in, has done this job for Douglas before.

The dancers, too, are mostly old hands of the Douglas Wright Dance Company, hand-picked, and not just for their personal aesthetic. Present are at least two of his most constant muses, Kilda Northcott, who has been in an "energetic" relationship with Wright from their pre-Limbs days, and Sarah-Jayne Howard, who first worked with Wright in Inland, in 2002, and was the supreme godess of Black Milk, in 2006, dancing naked bar her long red hair, a pair of scissors and scarlet shoes.

It is early afternoon and the February day peeks in awe through high windows. It prods curiously at the television set cast awkwardly askew in a corner, encased in a rope sling - and later spun and slung irreverently. Wright loathes the current offerings of television, labels them "brain-washing bullshit".

The sunlight picks out a sliver of concertina-ed plastic piping, with frog-eyed gas masks/diving helmets attached.

What?

The answer comes soon.

The masks are pulled over the heads of dancers Craig Bary and Will Barling as they commence a strange cross-legged, then knocked-kneed limp, joined at the head, sharing breath, in a precarious progression across the floor.

Their arms and hands move from a prayerful joining at the heart or behind the neck, to recite in unison, in sign language, lyrical and lovely, the Lord's Prayer. A signing expert came in and taught the whole company to sign the prayer, the movements are expanded into the work's movement vocabulary.

Inside the masks, Bary and Barling are chanting softly, to keep time and, when they finish close by, their muffled voices repeat "our needs are satisfied".

But not for long.

Re-masked, re-joined by that strange breathing/umbilical cord, they roll over and over and, at a certain point each time, the tube follows with a resounding splat.

It all needs attention. Musician David Long, behind a sound console, is offering some alternative music. Rapt is set to 17th century baroque composer Heinrich Biber and soundscape by Long. Is this new bit right? Or a bit too squeaky? Everyone has an opinion. It is decided the new piece is better than the original.

Wright speaks slowly in characteristic, articulated and flattish drawl. The angle of Barling's knees and turn of thighs are under scrutiny. After several repeats Wright is ready to move on.

As a dancer he never, ever compromised. Is this company of dancers up to his highest standards?

"Just," he replies. "Now for the 'splat-overs'."

The next section of work has the whole company in action. A "stag leap" and roll to the floor with a spine-wrenching twist and a hip thrusting lift back to the vertical plane is included.

Wright is not pleased.

"Your feet have to go wide and sideways!" That slow and carefully enunciated drawl doesn't sound frustrated. "What do I have to say to get it understood?"

He is patient with understudies Nancy Wijohn and Lianna Yew and Melbourne import David Huggins.

"Craig - do it again, with Kelly."

Bary and Howard have a special facility with Wright's way of moving and time and again he calls on their strength and prowess to refine moves and model them for the others. But not always. He catches a specific arm movement of Alex Leonhartsberger - and asks everyone to do it that way.

At one point he leaps from his chair to demonstrate - and a sliver of his old magical moving body is still there. But it costs. He retreats back, hand to rib in a spasm of pain. He fell this morning and hurt himself, he explains.

Ask him to talk about the meaning of this work, barely halfway through its rehearsal process and already three- quarters complete and he stares blankly.

"I can't explain it," he says. "That is why I make dance. I know what language can do - and there are things that can only be expressed in movement."

What things?

In festival programme notes, Wright has written "rapt is bringing to light the buried part of ourselves that needs dance in the same way a body needs a heart. Human beings have always expressed their joy, anger, triumph and fear through movement; movement then ritualised, now lost. Rapt celebrates the dark radiant energies of the body. It explores the threshold between sleep and waking, life and death, revealing a deluge of visceral images and haunting, unforgettable dances of serenity and power."

Long before the festival commission Wright was beset by ideas for this new work, by ideas trying to grow while he, equally determined, tried to "quell and squash" them. He was in a period of general depression about his work.

Rapt's darkest theme?

"The loss of identity, the complete loss of everything, of deep despair - of death, yes." But there is also an overriding theme of the very opposite kind, of rebirth and the resurrection of life.

"With lots of dance, just dance," he says. He opens his notebook and quotes Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory, words that beautifully define, for Wright, his kind of dance. "Innermost in man is the spiritual pleasure derivable from the possibilities of outtugging and outrunning gravity, of overcoming or re-enacting the earth's pull."

Obscure references from learned tomes have always littered Wright's thinking, fuelled his creativity.

"Isn't that marvellous," he smiles.

He was reading Janet Frame at age 11, he says, later forging a deep friendship with her, and he uses her words to describe his ongoing choice of reading material. "She called them 'the deads'. Stendahl, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Proust ..."

Reading is what Wright has always done, from childhood - when he couldn't dance. As a small boy his unusual obsession with movement was quickly channelled into gymnastics, but his ferocious intellect, signalled by his equally unusual reading choices, was completely overlooked and ignored.

His manic - he might say tantric - adventure through the early part of his life, the precocious first expression of his homosexuality, his great loves and mentors, his resurrection from cocaine addiction through dance, with Limbs, the Paul Taylor Company in New York and DV8Physical Theatre in London, before his return to New Zealand to form his own company is graphically portrayed in his first book, Ghost Dancer and was the subject of Leanne Pooley's feature-length documentary film, Haunting Douglas.

Rapt will be his 11th full-length dance work. "I didn't want to make another work," he says. "I was feeling really depressed and down about choreography. And then two angels came ..."

The first was in the random approach of a young woman in a supermarket.

"She came running up to me and said 'Oh my God - are you Douglas Wright?' and she was so enthusiastic about my work and so full of desire to see it, that it made me realise that I had connected with people.

"Connected versus corrected," he adds. "I find the constant correcting of people as a choreographer, is quite gruelling."

Those who have worked for Wright describe him as "kind" and "inclusive."

She speaks of Wright's "wry, warm and warped sense of humour" and his vulnerability to emotional upset.

Howard "dropped everything, to come back for Douglas". She normally lives in Sydney with her husband and 15-month-old son Duke, although her family is in New Zealand.

"He is inspiring - the way he moves, the way he makes work, his craft, and his sense of humour - then his darkness is fascinating. It is so exciting to work with him. I never know what I will be doing. Other choreographers are not like that."

Both speak of Wright's clear vision and his ability to encompass his whole company in the making of a work, using everything each dancer can contribute, but with no fudging, no blurring of his original idea.

Wright's second "angel" was Jessica Smith, now rapt's producer, who turned up at his door shortly after the supermarket encounter and said, "I have been thinking about you and I think you should make another work!"

Smith had recently returned from Europe and a conference for young festival managers where she "saw such a lot of bad dance".

"I visited a lot of companies and thought I would be blown away. There were a couple of instances - but nothing like a piece by Douglas."

She offered to produce a work if Wright was interested, approached the Festival organisation and applied for funding for an initial workshop.

"I think we were both feeling a bit chewed up and spat out at that time," she says.

The workshop took place mid-2010 and produced 40 minutes of "quality material". "Lots of people saw it," says Smith, "and the feedback was resounding."

"It has a celebratory feel," says Wright.

Rapturous?

Nothing is that simple in Wright's extraordinary sort of genius.

"There is a therianthrop in the work," he says. "You know, a creature that is part man and part animal - like Horus, with the head of an eagle or hawk."

He sounds genuinely surprised that the term "therianthrop" might not be widely known.

Birds of prey fall into the genus 'raptor', he explains. And the term is connected, in Wright's vision at least, with "rape".

In rapt is enacted the mythical story of Zeus, transformed to an eagle to kidnap and rape the beautiful young man, Ganymede ...

"Sarah-Jayne has the role of a sacrificial, reborn character in the form of a bird," he recaps. "But there is just a hint of a poetic narrative. It's much more than just dance, really."

Douglas Wright's rapt, The Civic, March 16 -19.

- NZ Herald

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