Until the formation of the Auckland-based The New Zealand Dance Company two years ago, there was only one national dance company – the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
The last time we had two was Limbs Dance Company, which disbanded in 1989. The New Zealand Dance Company co-founder, chief executive and artistic director Shona McCullagh, of Wellington, was a member of Limbs and remembers how important it was not only for her own development but for many dancers – especially once she graduated from the NZ School of Dance at age 21 and faced the big wide world.
"It's not for the faint-hearted, I can tell you."
It was the demise of Limbs that put the wheels in motion for McCullagh's dream to one day have another national fulltime dance company.
"I've always wanted to help generate the opportunities that I felt I received as a dancer in a fulltime company. I really appreciate and value how that contributed to my growth as a dancer. First and foremost as a dancer – if you're not dancing fulltime, it's an equation, you won't progress as quickly," she says. "This is me wanting to really throw a boomerang back."
McCullagh says the likes of Limbs also helped her as a choreographer. The advantage of a fulltime company was that the dancers got used to working together, were in shape and had a good understanding of "the choreographic process", she says.
The goal of The New Zealand Dance Company, which makes its Wellington debut next week, is the same. But McCullagh, who co-founded the company with Frances Turner, says this has only come about after years of trying to get the new company off the ground. "I was working a long time. It's common knowledge that this isn't the first time it [a national dance company] has been attempted. It's a brave thing to do and lots of people would probably think that it's a stupid thing to do in terms of devoting a huge amount of energy to what is a monumental task of creating a sustainable arts company. But Frances and I had worked together for 18 months before we put anything on a stage."
Creative NZ is the company's core funder and there are several sponsors and supporters, including Auckland Council and Dance Aotearoa New Zealand.
The company's North Island touring show Language of Living features six works, including McCullagh's Trees, Birds then People, set to Mondo Rondo by Wellington composer Gareth Farr and performed by The NZTrio. The company performed the work last year in Auckland and the result convinced her to include it on tour.
"That was a real joy last year. It does make a huge difference [having] the energy of live music. It was a very synergistic relationship between Gareth, myself and the NZTrio reworking the piece for the trio to play. We had lots of fun and the audience really remarked last year on how special it was to have those musicians on stage with us."
Most of the other works are also by Kiwis. Michael Parmenter, one of the country's most lauded choreographers, has the duet Tenerezza performed by Craig Barry and So You Think You Can Dance star Justin Haiu to a live performance of music by CPE Bach.
Human Human God by Sarah Foster-Sproull is a piece about Generation Y to music by Eden Mulholland from Kiwi indie rock band Motorcade. Release Your Robot by Haiu is inspired by the hip-hop street dance moves "robot" and "liquiding" and features a score by South Auckland trio The Electric Boutique. Its inclusion is part of the company's philosophy of embracing many forms of dance and music and having broad appeal, says McCullagh.
"We wanted to create a programme that we thought would have a good reach into regional audience as well as the main cities. That's a real blessing for dancers too, to be performing a range of work in one programme. I've always said 'I challenge anyone to walk away and not have enjoyed at least one piece'."
One work not by a New Zealander is Faune by the hugely influential Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker – she's even accused Beyonce of stealing some of her dance moves – and Englishman Mark Lorimer. It's set to Debussy's The Afternoon of a Faun and performed by Ursula Robb, who has been mentored by De Keersmaeker in Europe.
"It's our very first international work. I absolutely adore her [De Keersmaeker's] work and have admired her for many years, so it's a lovely tying up of a neat parcel of lineages and tangents," she says.
As to the company's plans after the tour, McCullagh says it has been invited to the Holland Dance Festival.
"We have also got interest from Australia ... the Australian market has always traditionally been a tough nut to crack. They are keen on coming here but not so keen on us going there."
Language of Living – The New Zealand Dance Company, Hawke’s Bay Opera House, Hastings
Friday 7 June at 7.30pm and Opera House, Wellington, June 12, 7.30pm
- The Dominion Post