Dancing from Picton to the world and back again
One of New Zealand's most celebrated and innovative contemporary dancers is bringing his critically praised new show to Christchurch. Ross McCormack talks to Charlie Gates about breakdancing, club nights, world tours and nearly losing his tongue.
When contemporary dancer Ross McCormack was seven years old, his life changed.
He became obsessed with breakdancing, nearly lost his tongue when he fell out of a tree, and his family broke apart.
The collision of these events changed the way he saw the world and set him on a path that would lead to touring the globe with one of the most influential dance theatre companies in the world before eventually returning home to devise innovative and exciting new contemporary dance works in New Zealand.
Back when he was seven, the break up of his family meant he had to move out of his childhood town of Picton with his mother and siblings.
"I knew Picton – it was small and easy. A sleepy little place. To suddenly move from there to Fitzgerald Ave in a women's refuge was quite a shock."
"There was quite a bit of shifting around. I ended up in some women's refuges along the way. That derailed a lot of my stability and concentration and showed me very quickly that the world was very different to my lounge at home.
"Those shocking shifts in my life probably started to make me rely on myself at a very young age for different things. I went from being a kid one way to being a kid a very different way. My senses were tuned in a very different way and I became very aware of everything around me."
The accident happened at around the same time.
"That was a traumatic time. That shift coincided with a very bad accident where I nearly lost my tongue. I wasn't able to talk.
"I fell out of a tree. It was a simple accident, but I fell badly and landed on my jaw and bit through my tongue. I was either going to have a speech impediment, or, if there was an infection, I would lose my tongue.
"There was a dramatic shift in the way I was living combined with this terrible accident and I think that definitely was a turn of the page for me. It was putting down one book and starting a very different kind of book."
But dance was always by his side as his family moved from town to town. He saw the 1984 film Beat Street at about the same time and became obsessed with breakdancing.
"Breakdancing was something I carried with me as the clothing of courage. Wherever I arrived that was the thing that I could lay down."
Breakdancing was his introduction to dance. He remembers listening to the radio back in Picton and hearing Rockit by Herbie Hancock, one of the first pop songs to feature scratching.
"I think that was a very early turning point for me.
"I love breakdancing. It was always there. A lot of people got into dance when they were taken to their sister's ballet class or something. For me, it was completely different. I heard Rockit and it blew my mind. I just instantly knew I had to commit myself to it. Then I became fascinated with breakdancing and that was always my way into dance."
He eventually settled in Rangiora when he was 10. He became a builder's apprentice in his late teens, but was still obsessed with dance.
"I would do building in the week and then get in the car and go to the big city and just dance. It didn't take long before I knew where all the good clubs were and who the DJs were. The scene was changing and the rave scene was taking hold.
"My main thing was filling up my drink bottle and dancing as much as I could. It was weird. When the nights would finish, I remember feeling like I can't just keep waiting for the clubs to start. Dance was becoming a really big thing that I needed to understand. Dance was what I loved, not partying."
He took some classes at Southern Ballet.
"Then I found myself suddenly with these little 10 years olds around me as an older guy trying to learn ballet. I tried to make that work and it wasn't that. And then I ended up doing contemporary dance and realised this was something I needed to invest more time in. That pushed me straight into auditioning for the New Zealand School of Dance. That opened up my entire career.
"My way into dance was purely organic and came from me following my heart. I was never taken along to anything as a child. My mother had no idea I wanted to dance, as did I. She was kind of shocked when it started to unfold. It literally came from a desire to express myself in music and in my body."
He started at the New Zealand School of Dance when he was 20.
"It was quite late. I was one of the oldest guys there. I steamrolled it. It was another thing to get obsessed with. I ended up having a key to the building so I could arrive early and stay late. I knew that I needed to catch up. I didn't know ballet like they did. I wasn't as flexible. I worked overtime on my body and trying to change it and work on my flexibility because I wanted to work in dance and get overseas and get out of New Zealand and dance around the world."
On graduation he successfully auditioned for influential dance theatre company Les Ballets C de la B.
"Dance became a lifestyle and work became a reality. That was 10 years in Europe with one of the world's most prestigious dance companies. I toured the world, from Russia to Greece. There was nothing in Europe left unturned. I never thought that would eventuate just from dancing in a club in Christchurch.
"I felt like I was being blown all over the world by dance. It was really something else."
But eventually he wanted to create his own work and return to New Zealand.
"I wanted to take what I had learnt, return to New Zealand and forge ahead with something.
"I was trying to figure out my own work – not just me as a spoke in a wheel or part of a beautiful team, but trying to put something together that is a bit larger. I started to feel like I wanted to say more than I could as a component piece in a larger work.
"It was hard to step out of the limelight and comfort and purpose and infrastructure of the company. I was right at the top, flying around Europe, performing for big audiences in the best theatres.
"It was bloody scary [to leave]. It was a wage and it was a good wage and an incredible lifestyle, but I could sense that it was stalling me as an artist."
In 2011, he formed his dance theatre company, Muscle Mouth. The company's first work, Age, was picked up by the New Zealand Festival in 2014 and was described by critics as "inventive" and "compelling".
Muscle Mouth's latest work, Triumphs and Other Alternatives, premiered in Wellington in April last year. The show was partly devised by McCormack over a wild week in a small room.
"I hired a room for a week, I filled this room with plastic to protect the floor and the walls, then I just had paint, plaster, hard plaster, bits of wood, bits of clay and just improvised in this mess and this character started to emerge - this weird mad professor of substance. I did this huge improv in this room for a week and it was just amazing. That was fun."
What Muscle Mouth eventually devised draws on Frankenstein and Pinocchio to tell the story of a mad professor building two people.
"A lot of dance can be very abstract – you don't know where it is and you just watch the body. I wanted to make a very specific room on stage. I wanted to build a workshop, a kind of mad professor's workshop inspired by Frankenstein and Gepetto.
"Suddenly, this piece grew and I couldn't work out if it was theatre or dance. It just became this very physical thing."
The show also draws on McCormack's early experience as a builder's apprentice and his memories of his father.
"My father had two boat frames that were endlessly being built on in the backyard and then suddenly we were in the water on this boat that he had built.. I thought he could build anything. I watched him build a house. You are around these projects all the time and it gives you a different association with your hands and choreography and dance.
"For me, I have always thought of building and dance as the same thing, somehow."
Triumphs and Other Alternatives will be performed on Tuesday, October 18 at the Isaac Theatre Royal. Book at Ticketek.