Back on her toes

By Sarah Lang

After six years off, acclaimed NZ dancer returns to her passion, writes Sarah Lang

Ursula Robb rehearses her Faune solo. Photo / John McDermott
Ursula Robb rehearses her Faune solo. Photo / John McDermott

Between the mental breakdown of the ballerina in the film Black Swan and the Russian ballerino arrested for an acid attack on his artistic director, I may have a skewed perception of the international dance world as a cut-throat environment of fierce rivalry, even enmity. New Zealand's global dance superstar, Ursula Robb, has never experienced any of that, but faced a different danger while dancing for explosively physical Belgian troupe Ultima Vez.

"We hurled bricks around the stage. I broke a finger, broke my foot, had a concussion."

It will be a much softer, subtler performance when Robb dances the solo Faune in Auckland and Wellington for the NZ Dance Company's six-centre North Island tour, Language of Living. The only international act on the proudly Kiwi, six-part programme, Faune was created by Mark Lorimer and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, arguably the world's leading choreographer.

I watch Robb rehearse in a small Wellington studio. Known for her strength, height and grace, she begins with robotic movements that become fluid as one movement blends imperceptibly into the next. "At 43, I can't do constant spins, flips and high legs, but it's nice to see subtlety."

Her passion for dance began as a girl. Her parents agreed to the two-hour round trip from their Raetihi farm to Taihape for lessons, on one condition. "I had to work out whether I really wanted it enough?" She did.

After studying contemporary dance at the NZ School of Dance, she danced professionally for five years. In 1995, she left for Europe. "My love for dance was greater than my fear of failure."

Robb spent 12 years touring the world in top European dance troupes, including Belgium-based ROSAS, helmed by De Keersmaeker.

This peripatetic lifestyle had its challenges. "It was hard to set up an apartment and learn a new language when I didn't know anyone. But I got paid well to do what I loved, got to buy an apartment, got tickets to go to South America, Israel, Paris."

In 2007, she returned home, exhausted, to recharge and reconnect with long-distance love Lorcan Birchall, an Irishman she'd met in 2005. They married and had Alexandra, now 6, and Fionn, 4. Initially, she enjoyed the quiet life, but she's hearing the siren call of dance again.

After her NZDC solos, Robb and family move to Copenhagen for a two-year teaching contract. Then they'll move to her husband's home country, Ireland, from where Robb plans to dance for many years to come. "I feel so incredibly fortunate to have my hobby as a career."

Language of Living opened yesterday in Auckland. It also plays in Warkworth, Whangarei, Orewa, Hastings and Wellington. See

- Herald on Sunday

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