Douglas Wright. Many Happy Returns

14 October 2023. The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington
report by Jennifer Shennan

On Saturday 14 October, this past weekend, a gathering at The Long Hall in Roseneath marked the birthdate of Douglas Wright, arguably the most remarkable dance artist this country has ever known. Douglas died on 14 November 2018. Here is a link to my obituary.

If you google the name Douglas Wright, you find 92 million hits. They’re not all for our Douglas of course—though they could be, so prolific was his choreographic, literary and visual arts output.

Google cites: Douglas James Wright MNZM (14 October 1956–14 November 2018) was a New Zealand dancer and choreographer in the New Zealand arts establishment from 1980.

The arts establishment? It’s s surprise to read that since I doubt many, including Douglas, would see him as a member of The Establishment, whatever that means. (It sort of implies someone on salary in a sinecure job in arts administration, which Douglas certainly never was. All his work lurched from one project to another, and unbelievably his company was never offered secure funding. That was everybody’s loss). 

Just as hard to fathom is an ACC listing (that’s Auckland City Council, not Accident Compensation Commission) of rooms for hire: ‘The Douglas Wright Room, which faces onto the carpark at the back of the building, can be booked in combination with the Leslie Comrie room.’

Who is Leslie Comrie, you ask. Born in Pukekohe 1893 (where Douglas was also born, 56 years later), Comrie, a University of Auckland graduate, became an astronomer and pioneering computer engineer. He died in London in 1950, 9 years before Douglas was born, I am not making this up. Perhaps we should hire both rooms for an Auckland party sometime to celebrate both Douglas-es?

The entries for others with the same name include an agricultural researcher, an American playwright, an experienced graduate architect with a passion for narrative design approaches, a commercial cleaner, a professor of medicine at Harvard specialising in Anaestheology and Perioperative Medicine. and a senior lecturer in Actuarial Science and Business Management in London. Perhaps the strangest of all is a 2009 listing in The Times of India ‘Douglas Wright, New Zealand dancer—a surprise seminar for teachers’ (I think the surprise would have been Douglas’), and the linked profile of someone appointed chief judge of a forthcoming Bollywood dance competition.

‘Enough’ I hear you cry. But the best of it is that Douglas would have been quite pleased to be listed alongside these illustrious others, since there’s a little bit of each of them in him, and the themes in his many works covered or referenced each of their callings, well, most of them. 

Thanks to the kindness of Megan Adams, fastidious executor of Douglas’ choreographic legacy, we were able to watch video of The Kiss Inside, the last of his full-length works, made in 2015. Recognisable in it are many motifs referencing others of his choreographies so in a sense he is archiving himself as he goes,.

All the cast are knockouts—but Sarah-Jayne Howard, Craig Bary and Luke Hanna, all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, were just as astonishing as we remember them eight years ago. The film is archival quality only, since there would not have been budget to make that broadcast quality. Here’s where the value of dance reviews come in—after the viewing we read Bernadette Rae’s very fine review from NZ Herald (it’s on line), and my own review at this link. You could also treat yourself to the astonishing photographs by Pippa Samaya of the work. (Two images from Pippa Samaya’s exceptional work are below.)

Sarah-Jayne Howard in two moments from The Kiss Inside, 2015. Photos: © Pippa Samaya

Leanne Pooley’s documentary, Haunting Douglas, (the word is verb, noun and adjective) is a fine record of Douglas’ life and work to 2003, when it was released. It’s up to us to remember the works made after that date. Black Milk, fortunately for us, is documented by Douglas in his book Terra Incognito, and also in the superb collection of photographs from the work, by the same name in a handsome edition by Potton Burton publishers.

Tessa Ayling-Guhl was smitten by seeing Black Milk as a youngster. Years later, when studying photography in Berlin, she was driven to request of Douglas that she might photograph him. He eventually agreed, and danced for her in the garden of his Mt Roskill home in 2015, the same year The Kiss Inside was made. The resulting images capture his body and his spirit. A set of these photographs were exhibited, as Geist Dance, in Hunters & Collectors shop gallery in Cuba Street, owned by Chrissie O, long-time friend of Douglas from the years before he became a dancer. Tessa’s photographs were again exhibited at The Long Hall so we felt Douglas’ presence at the gathering. We are inviting koha towards the purchase of one of the images for permanent display.

Robert Oliver (viola da gamba) Noelle Dannenbring (piano) and Lucas (violin) made special music, David Long and Prue (mother of Lisa) Densem spoke tributes, and messages were read from Roger Steele, Patricia Rianne, Raewyn Hill, Taiaroa Royal and Sean Macdonald.

It has been an easy decision that we should mark every 14 October from now on with a gathering to explore different aspects of Douglas’ choreographic legacy. We’ll call it Many Happy Returns, Douglas. Please save the date.

Jennifer Shennan, 17 October 2023

Featured image (detail): Douglas Wright, 2015. Photo: © Tessa Ayling-Guhl

10 thoughts on “Douglas Wright. Many Happy Returns

  1. Thank you for this post Jennifer. It has already attracted considerable interest, especially in Auckland and Wellington.

    I do hope readers of the post will open up the link to Pippa Samaya’s images of The Kiss Inside. The link can be found in your post and the images are absolutely stunning. So worth a look.

  2. It was an intense experience — and a great privilege — to work with Douglas on publishing his two poetry books,
    All poets are brave, to put their work ‘out there’, but Douglas was particularly so, because he bared so much of himself in his work. He had a high opinion of his poems, and rightly so, because they are finely wrought and as elegant, eloquent and heart-wrenching as a self-revelatory solo dance.
    Because he knew they were ‘the real thing’ he was disappointed his two books of poetry did not receive wider acclaim. Yet I am sure they were recognised as masterly by all who read them. One poem was chosen as one of the Best New Zealand poems of the year in 2009. All were unremittingly honest to the point of being raw, but they are often relieved by Douglas’s humour. And complemented by his delightful drawings, which are all the more poignant because he was once told he could not draw.
    In the end, every line of his drawings, every carefully chosen word of his poems, takes us on a journey inside Douglas, and enables us to see the world through his eyes.
    It’s obvious to say that Douglas was a dancer and choreographer beyond compare, but when I read his memoirs I thought they were masterpieces of their kind, and his poetry is in the same domain.
    And sadly we have no spare copies of his works left …
    At one of our meetings Douglas admired a hat I was wearing, so I gave it to him. It suited him very well.

  3. I wish I could have been with you at the gathering to honour Douglas .

    He was a force to be reckoned with, a fierce physical force as a dancer, an exciting and insightful performer , choreographer, director.
    In my 65 years as a dance artiste , having seen and been in other celebratory productions , I can safely say that Douglas, under the tutorage of Russell Kerr, in his production for RNZBallet in 1993, gave, in my opinion, the best, most poignant, most believable portrayal of the title role in the classic Russian ballet, Petrushka . A performance of international standing which NZ was lucky enough to see. Russell claimed with pride that he believed Douglas’ interpretation came as close to that of Nijinksy’s if the photographs are to be believed.
    Douglas tackled everything, his writing , poetry, performance with the same passion, energy and commitment.
    A special New Zealand dance artiste to be remembered with love and admiration.
    I trust you raised a glass on my behalf?

  4. I think of Douglas often. Every time I visit Cornwall Park, stumble onto an Emily Dickinson poem, or hear a Patti Smith song on the radio – Douglas seems to be near. When I was privileged enough to be present for Tai Royal and Sean MacDonald’s Arts Laureates Award presentations, I thought of Douglas and his legacy. I miss him, but I feel his presence often, and sometimes I hear him laughing…his laugh always made me laugh too.


    If you want to point people to the documentary HAUNTING DOUGLAS here’s where they can find it>

  5. Kia ora koutou,

    Happy Douglas Day. To all who will gather today to remember our friend I send my warmest regards and aroha.

    I send my apologies, I’m in Perth doing what he inspired me to do, what he helped teach me to do and endlessly encouraged me to do, dance!

    A year ago I was here with Megan and Ann to work with Raewyn Hills company CO3 to dance again the golden glow of his Gloria. I didn’t have to do all the jumping! Life, death, rebirth.

    I like to imagine him somewhere riffing with David Bowie and Leonardo da Vinci!

    Miss him….

    Love love,
    Sean x

  6. Dearest all,

    Sending so much love from Boorloo, Perth where Sean and I dance a new dance together. Last year we were blessed to bring Douglas’ GLORIA back to the stage, it was an honour and a gift — with thanks to Megan and Ann for their trust and care. Our audiences leapt to their feet and still talk to me about how profound the experience was with live voice and music.

    Douglas, you are with us always. We continue to jump high, fall hard, jump high, fall hard, jump high, fall hard always for you.

    With love and a wish to return home soon.

    Raewyn x

  7. Thank you to all those who have made comments on Jennifer’s tribute event to Douglas Wright. Sean MacDonald’s comment that he was not able to attend the event in Wellington because he was in Perth dancing, reminded me of how thrilling it was to watch him in Co3’s recent production in Perth of Wright’s Gloria. In case those who have just commented didn’t see my post on Gloria, it is at this link

  8. Our thoughts to all who gathered at The Long Hall for Douglas’ day. We were sorry not to be able to attend but we watched Haunting Douglas in Christchurch instead.

    It was wonderful to sight Tessa Ayling-Guhl’s photo portraits of Douglas. Lynne and I are moved to contribute to the purchase of one of them — so here’s $100, and a challenge to others to match that, or whatever they can manage, so there could be a visible presence of Douglas Wright in The Long Hall

  9. Kia ora tatou. Thank you all for these spirited comments — and particular thanks to Ian and Lynne Lochhead for your generous koha, and challenge, which has already attracted further donations from Chrissie O, from Robert Oliver and from me. The pot now holds $400 — which puts us close to half way there. These are stunning, large, framed images. Can we do it? Not that we should be setting a precedent of using On Dancing website as a fundraising portal —

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