Sarah Foster-Sproull is one of New Zealand's leading choreographers with her work performed all over the world. As Choreographer in Residence at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, her latest piece, Ultra Folly, is one of the four ethereal works by female choreographers which make up the RNZB's Venus Rising, touring New Zealand August 20-September 19. www.rnzb.org.nz
I was a very quiet, very polite child. People might find that surprising now but, when I was young, I didn't say much, probably because I was figuring out what I thought about things. My mother is an artist and a very skilled craftswoman and my dad was a fencer, building fences on farms, so I spent a lot of time outdoors in gumboots, either exploring the town belt behind our house in Dunedin or roaming our land in Maungatua.
I was very dreamy, observant and curious, usually caught up in my imagination. When I turned 7 I started dance classes and I identified a side of my personality that was disciplined and focused and I loved ballet. By the time I got to high school, I was given a key to the dance studio and I'd go in before class at 6am and on the weekends. I was always practicing, because my aspiration was to join the ballet company.
One year I went to a summer dance school and a friend there told me she was going to The New Zealand School of Dance. This was before the internet, when we relied on word of mouth to find things out. I got really excited about going there too, and being able to dance all day, every day.
Auditioning for dance school was scary. I was very nervous and desperately wanted to impress the panel, as a result I probably came across as deeply awkward. I left that first audition in Christchurch thinking I didn't do very well. I felt so stink - but the acceptance letter came and, at just 17, I moved to Wellington.
Mum taught me some key meals - spaghetti bolognaise, a chicken dish, a curry of some description, a satay - then it was baptism by fire, learning to pay rent and bills, how to live with other human beings, negotiating different personalities. It felt normal at the time but, reflecting now it was possibly a little early to be doing that - a bunch of 17-year-olds living in a flat on The Terrace.
During the week I was dedicated to ballet and during the weekend I'd go out and party. My parents will be so unhappy to hear this, but I even had a fake ID. The world was so different then, there were no distractions like social media. Nowadays there's a lot more repression, young people are being pulled in all these different directions, yet it's necessary for them to seem outwardly in control of their lives.
Over the three years of training you really learn who you are and I learnt I was not meant to be a professional ballet dancer, which wasn't easy on the palate. It felt like the death of something. Changing to contemporary dance was fraught but the process of transformation led to a flourishing of my personality and it allowed me to embrace my choreographic side.
When I work with young dancers today, they seem so much more mature and advanced and they appear to have things under control in a way I did not. They ask intellectual, considered and well-researched questions about companies, directors and choreographic processes. My memory of myself, I wouldn't have asked those questions, I would've been too scared of the teacher - as a teacher now, I would be mortified if any of my students were scared of me.
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How you can make art and not think about it critically? As a dancer, I was always seeking to understand what was going on, so moving into postgraduate research felt very natural - although writing my masters, it felt like my brain cracked open in lots of different ways.
I now work at the University of Auckland in Dance Studies, which is like a massive deep-thinking academic family of research experts crossing many different fields. It's also the most grown-up job I've ever had. I can send things from my computer to the printer, which is very luxurious, but when I sit on committee, I think to myself "if only you knew what a wacky person I am underneath this facade". Part of my objective at university is to keep that wackiness at the forefront of my work.
I started with the Dance Studies programme at the start of this year. I had three weeks in the studio teaching postgraduate choreography and undergrad contemporary dance technique - then we went into lockdown. From that moment, I had to teach all my lectures online. I was on Zoom from first thing in the morning till the end of the day. I quickly got used to it, and was quite scared how normal it ended up feeling, how surprised I was that I loved rolling out of bed and starting work immediately, because I'm actually a deeply social being. I love being around other people and I did feel a degree of grief, to not have one-on-one contact, and with no incidental bodily feedback, you can't sense someone's energy when communicating through a screen. In some ways, it felt efficient and in others it was challenging and isolating and sad.
A dance career is a portfolio career and it will involve many different things. Joining a company only happens for a small percentage and the rest have to juggle a lot of things that mesh together, enhancing all aspects of the career. It can get confusing at times, but I like it that way, and all the various things interlink and feed into each other.
Sometimes I'm winging it and other times I've been guided by incredibly generous human beings. Some people have really backed me. At times when I've not really known what I was doing, people have said, "Let's give Sarah a crack". Like Patricia Barker, the ballet company's artistic director, saying "Come make a work for us. Give it a go" and we really hit it off.
As an artist it's also important to support and offer opportunities where you can and, when you have success, or a triumph, or a career progression, that you hold the door open and welcome others behind you. Never hold onto everything for yourself. We must put ourselves in vulnerable positions, taking leaps and chances but always making sure the pathway is clear behind you. I have also had some people make a point of not helping me. That is disappointing, and I don't forget but I'm also thankful for those moments as I have learnt from them.
For the future, I want to continue making wild dance moves and challenging myself. I love a good challenge, of course I prefer the nice times but the incredible thing about going through something tough, you come out the other side and think, "oh, that's right, it's ok to find things difficult' because it's a big wide world and there is so much more to learn".