While walking on the beach, Shona McCullagh asked herself what she would do if she had only two years to live. The award-winning choreographer and film-maker weighed up her dreams: to make a feature film or set up a full-time permanent national contemporary dance company? She chose the latter.
It was the magic of watching French ballerina Sylvie Guillem and English dancer Russell Maliphant perform Push in Auckland’s ASB Theatre in April 2009 that rekindled an old desire. “The lighting was so beautiful and so simply done,” says McCullagh. She thought, “How can we get New Zealand dance onto the ASB stage and the house to be as full as it was that night? What would we have to do to make that happen? An artist can’t do it alone.”
Once committed, McCullagh propelled herself into action. The first step was to invite experienced dance manager and businesswoman Frances Turner to co-found the company. “Shona rang me just before Christmas and after a day’s thought I rang her back saying, ‘Yes,’” says Turner. Eighteen months of largely unpaid work followed as the pair carefully consulted, built a strategy and formed partnerships to underpin the company.
In late April this year, 50 guests gathered in a Unitec Institute of Technology dance studio for the first public announcement of the New National Contemporary Dance Company Initiative. After we watched a class that included company dancers specially chosen for the 2012 inaugural season, the company’s aspirations were revealed. Its vision is to offer New Zealand’s best dancers and most exciting graduates the opportunity to work full-time under contracts that honour their ability.
In June, a larger invited audience enjoyed the result of a month’s rehearsal by the company. Five works, accompanied by live music, presented on the stripped-out backstage of the ASB Theatre, offered a taste of things to come. The eclectic programme, selected with care to appeal to a wide audience, will be the company’s first season. During the intervals, McCullagh and Turner spoke eloquently of their vision – conjuring up images of airy studios, full-time dancers rehearsing, musicians working with choreographers, and costume and set designers. Then their board chairman, Jeff Davidson, asked all to dig deep to assist in raising the $1 million to make it happen.
Fuelling the initiative is McCullagh’s deep concern for the large number of talented dancers who without full-time work opportunities are forced to leave the country. New Zealand audiences rarely see them except when some briefly return after being invited back for seasons with top local choreographers.
Turner says she is there because of her passion for dance. “It’s purely selfish. I was also at Push, and it was absolutely beautiful. I want that calibre of work on stage more regularly in New Zealand. There is a lot of contemporary dance here but there isn’t that level where companies are regularly putting dance on the ASB stage.”
Auckland will be the company’s home; it is already “company in residence” at Unitec. The city’s size offers potential for audience growth, plus McCullagh believes there is an arts renaissance taking place.
So with the “positively Auckland” ethos, why “national” in the company’s name? McCullagh says the choice was purely commercial. “The need to be a national company is a responsible response to the investment of funding in the creation of work.” She says there needs to be a better balance between the investment, creation and consumption of work. “Often quite significant amounts of money are invested in the creation of work. A project may culminate in four or five performances at the most, and quite often never tours. Usually, the reason work doesn’t tour is the lack of a strong permanent infrastructure around that artist or that work. For me, this economic paradigm has to change.”
Currently, there is a good regional spread of contemporary dance companies, but only two are full-time: Wellington-based Footnote Dance commissions New Zealand choreographers, employs high-quality dancers and performs nationally and internationally; in Auckland, Black Grace is a vigorous voice for contemporary Pasifika dance, with a strong international profile.
In the mix is Auckland’s innovative Maori contemporary dance company, Atamira, and the fledgling Christchurch-based Southern Lights, presenting its second season in October with local, national and international choreographers.
Southern Lights artistic director Adam Hayward says, “The national dance company is a fantastic idea. The time is right for an assessment of the contemporary dance landscape – how to get stronger works that attract our dancers and choreographers, not only to stay here, but to come back.”
Hayward says that in talks with McCullagh he suggested if the Auckland company was going to be the “cream of the cream”, then Southern Lights could act as a feeder company. “Emerging choreographers could be trialling works on Southern Lights, and our dancers could act as understudies for the company.”
Deirdre Tarrant, artistic director of Footnote, currently on tour with her company, writes from London that she has always focused on building a strong infrastructure. “Footnote has been a substantial platform for dancers, composers and choreographers over the past 25 years. It grew out of the needs of the art form, adapting to meet the changing environment, but constant in terms of being about ‘New Zealand Made’.” Reality is the key to survival, she says. “It is about trust, vision and caring for creative artists, giving them space to explore and create work.”
McCullagh says the new company – to be known as the New Zealand Dance Company – will complement these companies by growing a strong brand for dance. “There is a very small dance audience here and that makes it difficult for everybody. A number of people I talk to are completely mystified by contemporary dance and indeed angered by it. I am committed to changing that belief. Without a consistency of delivery of high-calibre dance, we can’t build the audience for dance in New Zealand – if you grow that, it has to be good for the whole art form.”
Contemplating raising $1 million while the country is struggling to come out of recession, McCullagh is upbeat. “In times of difficulty, art becomes even more important. Yes, it is going to be a challenge, but what arts company isn’t a challenge?” The revenue sources will be what McCullagh calls the three-legged stool: Government and charitable trust funding; box office income; and sponsorship. “To date, the response from the business sector, a venue, funding bodies and individuals donating is really exciting.”
Probably the company’s greatest asset is McCullagh’s determination and impressive dance lineage. A distinguished graduate of the New Zealand School of Dance, a member of the Limbs Dance Company, an Arts Foundation of New Zealand laureate in 2002, a 2007 Creative New Zealand senior choreographic fellowship recipient, she has received numerous accolades and awards for her choreography and innovative work in dance film and as an installation artist. She is now working on the opening and closing ceremonies of the Rugby World Cup.
The company is “going to fly – I feel it”, she says. “But this isn’t about a company for me, this is about a company for the country; those next generations of dancers and choreographers. I want to be part of a movement that really shifts society’s attitude to dance, from something that is mystifying and irrelevant to something that is deeply connected to them and extremely relevant and reflects who they are.”