Sarah Foster-Sproull has nice manners – at least during interviews.
Described as one of New Zealand's "most compelling, innovative and creative choreographers" in 2017 when she received the $100,000 Creative NZ Choreographic Fellowship, she gives considered and polite replies to questions, speaks softly but passionately, doesn't swear and apologises if there's a question she can't answer.
That is until midway through a telephone interview, when we get to how much dancers earn. In May, Creative NZ and NZ On Air released the first research of its kind in 20 years asking 1500 artists about their income, training and well-being to find out more about what it takes to keep a creative career going.
A Profile of Creative Professionals concluded dancers earn, from their art form, $17,500 per annum. When Foster-Sproull, 41, hears that figure, she raises her voice and gets ever so slightly irked.
"Was that $17,500 a year for just dance or all income? It's not a report that is a meaningful reflection of my career as a dancer ... I don't want the message of this interview to be that it's tough to be a dancer because it's not. It's f***ing great; it's so incredible to be a dancer and a maker in this community and it's not about money.
"Yes, the wages are potentially low but there are lots of different things you can do in a portfolio career that build up an income ... but it's not just about money. I wouldn't have chosen to go into this career if I thought I wanted to be a wealthy fat cat in an Italian suit smoking cigars.
"I am doing this because it has an actual impact on my ability to communicate ideas to the world, to be with people, to be a self-actualised global citizen in the world, to make change in my community, to invest in other people – all of the stuff that I believe in as a human being is invested in this community and that's why I work in contemporary dance and work with the people that I work with."
Such has been Foster-Sproull's dedication to dance that there are probably few people better qualified to talk about it – and its place in the here and now – than she is. She started when she was 6 because a doctor said it would help with her knock-knees; at 17 she left her Dunedin home for the New Zealand School of Dance in Wellington.
The list of awards, fellowships and residencies Foster-Sproull has won could fill this page; she's worked all over the world from Fiji to France and alongside some of our greatest dancer/makers – Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter, Shona McCullagh, Malia Johnson, Raewyn Hill. Crystal Pite, currently one of the world's most-in-demand choreographers, handpicked Foster-Sproull as one of five international choreographers for a prestigious Canadian workshop.
Now Foster-Sproull has taken on one of the biggest jobs in dance, choreographing the annual World of Wearable Arts (WoW) show in Wellington: 110 performers in total; 30 of them dancers, 30 models and the rest a mix of community performers, aerialists and parkour experts. Where does one even start coming up with the steps to best showcase wearable art in a spectacle (directed by Australian Andy Packer and involving forays into multiple different fantastical worlds) that will be seen by 60,000 people?
Planning, she says, falling into the already established systems at WoW and talking with those on and off-stage, then working out how to move people around each other. And remembering to breathe and revel in being part of a slick machine that has done this for 30-odd years.
"I'm really relishing the opportunity to be a part of someone else's ultimate vision, because usually I am deciding upon all of those things myself. It's quite a privilege to go, 'Ah, these are the ideas! This is how I can enhance them! This is how I can help you!' It's quite fun for me ... I have never done anything like this before and it's an amazing job."
Would she do it again?
"That's an instant yes, for me."
But before she does it again, Foster-Sproull starts her "dream job" as full-time lecturer at the University of Auckland's dance studies department. Being an academic, she says, will incorporate everything she loves about dance and give her the chance to work at the university with the largest number of PhD dance students in the world.
She may even be able to talk around some of those reluctant to go for it and pursue their love of dance.
"I get the concern from parents but life is short and what terrifies me is seeing people who are so averse to taking a risk with their lives that they do nothing. I want to encourage my own children to be bold in this world, to follow their dreams, as idealistic as that sounds, to take a risk on something, to not follow a pathway that other people have carved out just because they think it's safe."