Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.

The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.

Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, The Ragtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlettt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.

We should tell our grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good place.

The clearly important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say Thank You.

Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.

The sagas of company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.

Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’

Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’

Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.

A friend in the audience commented later—’One thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his weight in gold.

There are more stories to be found in Jon’s recently published memoir, Why Dance?and details of the Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.

Jon has also explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and truckloads of performance memories.

Also apparent is a deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’

Bill Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T. perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of love, ownership and appreciation.’

Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.

So what did Jonty do? He joined in the applause of course.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.

Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

Russell Kerr lecture, February 2019

The Russell Kerr lecture for 2019 was delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, on 10 February 2019 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Lochhead is dance critic for The Press, Christchurch, and formerly Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. His lecture focused on the tours to New Zealand by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1937 and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1939.

While the lecture as a whole opened up a number of issues that perhaps have not been fully considered in previous writings about the Australasian Ballets Russes tours, for me the most fascinating moment of all came when Lochhead flashed up the image used as the featured image on this post. It is well known to most Australians interested in the tours of the Ballets Russes and shows (l–r) Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova (later Tamara Finch) with bicycles. Paul Petroff stands to the right, hands in pockets. It belongs in the Papers of Tamara Finch (MS 9733) and it has always been considered to have been taken somewhere in Australia. But Lochhead showed convincingly that the image was shot in Christchurch in 1939 during the visit to that major South Island city by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet.

Lochhead introduced us (or certainly me) to Olivia Spencer Bower, an English-born artist who lived a large part of her life in New Zealand. Spencer Bower, it seems, was taken with the dancers of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and the Spencer Bower collection at the Christchurch Art Gallery includes an album of photographs, which she may have taken herself, of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet during its 1939 visit. One, reproduced below, shows a row of at least seventeen dancers holding bicycles and lined up in front of a theatre identified by Lochhead (a Christchurch resident) as Christchurch’s Theatre Royal. It has a large poster advertising the Covent Garden Russian Ballet across its entrance and to the side of the line-up is the tobacconist and hairdresser shop seen in the featured image above. Ismailoff, Volkova, Tupine, and Tchinarova are wearing the same clothes in both images. There is no doubt that the featured image above is not from Australia but from Christchurch.

Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Her Majesty's Theatre Christchurch, 1939. Olivia Spencer Bower photo album, Christchurch Art Gallery
Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Theatre Royal, Christchurch, 1939. Olivia Spencer Bower photo album, Christchurch Art Gallery. Reproduced with the permission of the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation

It is always a thrill to discover new information about material in archival holdings. And it is even better when new information allows us to revise previous assumptions. The featured image in this post celebrates Christchurch as a venue for the visiting Ballets Russes companies that had such an influence on the growth of dance in the southern hemisphere.

Ian Lochhead’s lecture was preceded by two danced items: a performance of the Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby, a second year student of the New Zealand School of Dance; and The Dying Swan performed by Abigail Boyle from Royal New Zealand Ballet. Frisby showed beautiful control and I look forward to seeing more of her work. Abigail Boyle has featured on this website on several occasions. Live music, and it was exceptional, came from pianist Hamish Robb and cello player Inbal Megiddo, both from the New Zealand School of Music, Te Koki.

It is with a certain regret that I add that Boyle will shortly retire as a performer. Recent news from Royal New Zealand Ballet indicates that Boyle will dance in RNZB’s forthcoming New Choreographic Series and will then pursue a teaching career.

A note on the first Russell Kerr lecture held in 2018 is at this link

Michelle Potter, 15 February 2019

Featured image: Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Christchurch, 1939. Photographer not identified. Papers of Tamara Finch, National Library of Australia

Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

June Kerr (1932–2018)

by Jennifer Shennan

Russell Kerr has been the treasured father of ballet in New Zealand since he returned here in 1957 after some years dancing in UK, where he had married fellow dancer, June Greenhalgh. His directorship of New Zealand Ballet in 1960s was a visionary and courageous one and his loyal contribution has continued in all the years since. June danced in the celebrated United Ballet seasons of 1959–1960, but then became the mother of two children. Her contribution to ballet in this country may not have been as publicly visible as her husband’s but it was just as real, and she was with him every step of the way.

June Kerr, nee Greenhalgh, was born in 1932, in Southend-on-Sea, England, the youngest of three children.  Her father had started his seafaring career on sailing ships and later became a merchant navy captain while her mother held the home fires during his extended periods of time away at sea.

As a child June attended the Cone-Ripman school where the curriculum combined general education with ballet and related theatre-arts training.  Originally based in London but relocated during WWII to Hertfordshire, it later became known as Arts Educational School.

Anton Dolin, having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became a pioneer of ballet in England (and toured New Zealand with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in late 1930s). Dolin visited the Cone-Ripman school after World War II and selected 12 young dancers, June Greenhalgh among them, to join a troupe he and Alicia Markova were forming. This later developed into a permanent London-based company, Festival Ballet, of which June was thus a foundation member. (Renamed English National Ballet in 1989, this is the company that performed a season of Giselle in Auckland earlier this year. The ballet world sits across national boundaries and through time, its best dancers becoming citizens of an international ‘country’).

In 1952 Anne Rowse, a young New Zealand dancer training in London, also joined Festival Ballet, and she and June became instant friends. Anne spoke movingly at the funeral of the  lifelong friendship that ensued.

June Greenhalgh in Ruth Page’s The Merry Widow/Vilia. Festival Ballet 1953

In 1953 another young New Zealander, Russell Kerr, joined Festival Ballet. He and June held hands, but he explained to her they’d better not get too serious because he would at some stage be returning to New Zealand, feeling a moral obligation to do that on account of the Government bursary he had been awarded. ‘Not a problem. I’d come too,’ replied June, and so they were married without delay.

Festival Ballet, under the Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg, toured and performed in UK, Europe, Canada and US with memorable programs, and the likes of Igor Stravinsky conducting in the pit. In 1957 the Kerrs left all that behind and came to settle in New Zealand. (Lucky I was, to be a child pupil at Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet in Auckland where Russell became a partner. I continue to learn from him to this day).

Make no mistake—Russell would become the lion, and June the lioness, of ballet in this country when they moved to Wellington in 1962 and he became director of New Zealand Ballet. (Poul and Rigmor Gnatt had been the pioneering tiger and tigress who preceded them, since 1953). With unstinting loyalty, Kerr delivered pedigree standards of heritage repertoire (Swan Lake, Petrouchka, Prince Igor, Schéhérazade, Coppélia, Nutcracker, and much more), to put New Zealand firmly on the world ballet map. His own choreographic output was enormously prolific and gave the Company some of its greatest hits—Prismatic Variations, Carnival of the Animals, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Terrible Tom … it’s a very long list.

The spouse of such a driven choreographer is the supportive, attentive, unpaid and often invisible, kindest critic who stays calm and acts as a beacon when storms rage and finances plummet—or, in the Kerrs’ case, when Russell worked himself close to death to sustain the company endeavour, through to 1969. A disastrous fire that had destroyed almost all the Company’s resources in 1967 had not helped.

There were later periods directing Auckland Dance Centre, then the Kerrs moved to Christchurch which would remain their home until today. Southern Ballet Theatre was a highly enterprising initiative and for years productions were mounted there on a miniature scale but uncompromising in dance and music standards. There were numerous collaborations with composer, Philip Norman, and designer, Peter Lees-Jeffries, so Christchurch was well served in that time. No-one can remember how it was financed probably because there was no budget worth remembering.

June would accompany Russell to Wellington whenever he was engaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet to stage a production on the company. She was always so pleased to walk in the Botanical Gardens, to visit a gallery, or over a coffee to swap family news, always with the kindest interest and sweetest nature. ‘No I won’t have another coffee thanks. I’ll be meeting Russell for lunch in the rehearsal break so I’ll have one with him then.’ In later years the dear couple would still venture out together to a local café and continue their lifelong habit of people-watching in public places. ‘That’s where you learn about different characters—how they move, what they look like, you can guess much of their experiences from such things. It’s like research for choreography,’ Russell would say.

They were still holding hands when June died last week. The photos on the order of service show a fine-boned, wide-eyed, gorgeous redhead, gamine beauty, a shade reminiscent of Moira Shearer (the ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes ). Ballet in New Zealand owes much to the Kerr family.

In 1940, June, aged 8, was on the list of children to be repatriated out of war-time London to live out the duration of the war elsewhere, in her case on the SS City of Benares to Canada. For reasons never explained, her parents removed their daughter from the passenger list the day before it sailed, and just as well because the ship was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic.

June would later tell that story, and when asked ‘What happened to the 90 children on board?’ would answer ‘Oh, they were all saved’ and she went to her grave believing that to be so. In fact, 77 of the 90 children on board died, but it’s a reasonable guess June’s parents believed that an 8-year-old didn’t need to know that. It was a heart-stopping moment at the funeral to learn about what was probably the only ‘lie’ anyone ever told to this kind and trusting woman

June Kerr: Born South-end-on Sea, England, 12 June 1932; married Russell Kerr, 1 son, 1 daughter; died Christchurch, New Zealand, 29 October 2018

A version of this obituary first appeared in The Dominion Post on 24 November 2018. Sources: Russell Kerr, David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Keith McEwing.

Featured image: June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations. Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt; designed by Raymond Boyce. New Zealand Ballet 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

 

 

 

 

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright (1956–2018)

Douglas James Wright, dreamer of dances
by Jennifer Shennan

Douglas Wright, dancer, choreographer, writer, poet, visual artist, has died at the age of 62.

An obituary is normally about the deceased, but I begin with my declaration of conflict of interest (actually, deeply shared interest)—namely, that Douglas is the single most important artist in my life. His fearless vision through an astonishingly prolific artistic output moved us beyond comfort, beyond normalcy, beyond the already known. Not fantasy, not surrealism, not escapism, but expressionist art of the highest order, framed with wit—dark, caustic, incorrigible, ironic and hilarious by turns, and teeming with alternative perceptions of the natural and social givens. As a New Zealand artist across five genres, Douglas Wright remains a phenomenon without peer.

The Solomon Islands term for a choreographer translates as ‘dreamer of dances’. That epithet pleased Douglas since he often referenced Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep. His last dance, commissioned by art gallery director Michael Lett, was exquisitely performed by Sean MacDonald at Tempo Dance Festival in October, with final rehearsals conducted at the hospice. Titled M_Nod, with Morpheus in mind, it incorporated a James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, an aesthetic that suited Douglas well. The work was dedicated to the late Sue Paterson, Douglas’ long-standing colleague and friend.

In 1998 Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2000 a Laureate of The Arts Foundation. His company, Douglas Wright and Dancers, only ever received project-based funding from the Arts Council and there can be no easy way to analyse why his phenomenal talent was not better supported and continuously facilitated across the decades. Permanent funding of company management and adequate resources to tour his work internationally were what he wanted and deserved, but they were never forthcoming. In that, we let down both him and ourselves.

Now that Douglas is safely silenced, the tributes are flowing in torrents. Our best honour to him however is to remember his work, and lucky we are that he has written about dance, the most ephemeral of the arts, in depth and detail. The outstanding video documentary Haunting Douglas by Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films) is the finest portrait of a dance artist anywhere.

A consummate man of the theatre, the words Douglas loathed most were ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. His constant attention was to our experiences—the public, the personal and the private. If it had happened, or been thought or dreamt, then spit it out, say it loud, choreograph it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, tell it as it is. If some audiences or critics took offence, at least they were not bored. It was proof they were engaged. An indelible image remains—from Black Milk—when Three Graces, dressed in nurses’ uniforms, brought forward a tray of medical syringes then knelt to inject the stage floor, presumably a local anaesthetic to help us through what was to follow.

Douglas certainly had a gift for naming his dances—listen to them—Now is the Hour, Passion Play, How on Earth, As It Is, Buried Venus, Inland, Forever, Black Milk, Rapt, The Kiss Inside. He did not need tertiary education to lead him to literature, but as a school boy simply raided the library. His voracious reading habits included an early affinity with the writings of Janet Frame. His memoir, Ghost Dance, (Penguin, 2004, awarded the Montana prize for Best First Book) makes clear the abiding importance of his relationship with artist Malcolm Ross. (David Eggleton’s 2004 review for The Listener of Ghost Dance is definitive).

Douglas grew up in rural New Zealand, in Tuakau. The place name means tu = to stand, akau = river bank. You get a good view of a river when you stand on its bank. You get a good view of Douglas Wright through Pooley’s documentary, about his childhood intrigue at the woman dancing in a white dress on the porch of the neighbouring house in moonlight (‘…perhaps she was a moth who laid her eggs in me’) and fascination with his grandmother taking him to Catholic Mass (later referenced in Halo, for Royal New Zealand Ballet).

To his father’s disgust, rugby held no interest for the child but Douglas’ childhood talent for gymnastics brought him junior champion status and photos reveal a strength, grace and line that would eventually lead him to dance. The boy travelled alone from Tuakau to Auckland for regular training sessions, which led into the darkness of predatory sexual abuse in bus stations as bad as anything you’ve imagined. He was robbed of his childhood and the scars lasted for life, yet he could later communicate the complexity of the experiences without letting it destroy him. One poem, in his volume CactusFear (Steele Roberts, 2011) tells us about it, if you can get through it without crying.

After leaving school there was a dramatic drug career, eventually supplanted by his dance career, initially with Auckland-based Limbs Dance Company (1980–1983). Teacher Dorothea Ashbridge imparted the ballet technique that helped Douglas ‘map my body … give names and directions to movements my body already knew’. He spent 1983–1987 with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, a spectacular career, with performances and choreography (Hey Paris, Faun Variations) still remembered decades later by New Yorkers who probably see six dance performances every week.

Douglas’ astonishing strength combined with lyricism can be seen in DV8’s talisman and horrifyingly brilliant work by Lloyd Newson, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in 1988 (available on dvd). Back in New Zealand Douglas’ grief at losing friends to Aids is choreographed into Elegy, 1992. Although not the death sentence it once signaled, Douglas’ own HIV diagnosis was encompassed in choreographies Forever and Ore.

In 1993 Russell Kerr cast Douglas in the title role of his production of Petrouchka for Royal New Zealand Ballet, described in Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (VUP, 2013). His insights into performing that celebrated role, created by Nijinsky, are rare, if not unique, in the annals of ballet history. Douglas wrote what Nijinksy was unable to.

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Three works commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Decay of Lying (1992), Rose and Fell, (1997) and Halo (2000) are all remembered by the dancers. Critics were challenged, as critics often are, but Douglas remained disappointed that the company never re-staged any of those works.

Douglas’ mercurial and multi-faceted personality was reflected in his works—by turns ecstatic (Gloria, A Far Cry); melancholic (Terra Incognito, Black Milk); grief-stricken (Elegy, Rose & Fell); satirical (The Decay of Lying); gender-shifting (Hey Paris, Forever); political (Black Milk); spiritual (Rapt, The Kiss Inside). We sense that whatever happened to him surfaced somewhere in one of his choreographies, but were never just about himself. He staged themes that may have shocked, or saddened, but they rang with truth.

Douglas released the artistry in many dancers and they know who they are. Lisa Densem (in the astonishing photo montage by Peter Molloy on the cover of the Pooley documentary) told me, ‘After you’ve worked with Douglas you have had more than a dance experience. He lets you become his friend.’

Several dancers became his muses: Debbie McCulloch with whom he shared an early close rapport; the enigmatic ‘goddess-like’ Kilda Northcott; Sarah Jayne Howard, a fiery furnace of a performer. Alex Leonhartsberger danced like Douglas-come-again, then Sean MacDonald became the final trusted courier of Douglas’ dream visions. Repertoire has been expertly staged in recent years by rehearsal director, Megan Adams.

There were only the briefest tours taking Douglas’ works abroad, yet, had that been responsibly managed and financed, he would have earned an international reputation as the Pina Bausch of the Southern Hemisphere. Nought to be done about that now but live with it. At least his treasures are in Nga Taonga Film & Sound Archive, in art galleries, on bookshelves, and in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Douglas once asked me how baroque dance works—not that he wanted to perform one, just to understand how people danced in different times and places, so I showed him. He instantly caught the implications of the highly stylised technique, then quoted Louis XIV to me, and in one hour learned a sarabande that would take a ‘normal’ student a year to master.

Five of Douglas’ drawings, purchased by the Chartwell Collection for Auckland Art Gallery, hang in a current exhibition there alongside works by Colin McCahon, by Gretchen Albrecht (who provided the backdrop for Douglas’ first full-length work, Now is the Hour) and Jim Allen, celebrated sculptor of light. Douglas’ note alongside his work reads, ‘The figures in my drawings are verbs not nouns’. A number of these drawings are incorporated into his volume of poetry, Laughing Mirror, (Steele Roberts, 2007) where he famously penned the line, ‘Never trust an artist who is always trying to explain their work’.

Perhaps Auckland City Council might consider converting Douglas’ council flat, his home for many decades, in Norgrove Ave, Mt. Albert, into a choreographic residence? Alongside all else, Douglas was a perfectionist, not to say obsessive, gardener. The ancient cycads growing there (he would groom the spider webs off them with a toothbrush) might inspire a younger generation of home-grown dance-makers. Goodness knows, the country needs them.

Helen Aldridge, a Waiheke teacher and arts advocate, commissioned from Douglas a choreography to commemorate the life of her daughter, Deirdre Mummery, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Helen told me she did not know what to expect—perhaps a lament, or lachrimae? Instead, Douglas produced the exquisite Gloria, to Vivaldi, celebrating the life of his young friend. Gold silk-clad dancers fly and twist and turn in an airborne wonder. It’s the best dance ever made, by anyone, anywhere.

Beautifully filmed by Alun Bollinger, it’s there on YouTube (note, inexplicably, in two parts), posted anonymously by ‘a Rugby supporter’. Where is James Joyce when you need him?

Douglas is survived by his loyal and devoted mother, Pat, and the dancers of New Zealand.

Douglas James Wright: born 14 October 1956, Pukekohe; died 14 November 2018, Auckland

Acknowledgements: Megan Adams, Helen Aldridge, Lisa Densem, Sarah (Lawrey) George, Sean MacDonald, Keith McEwing, Leanne Pooley, Turid Revfeim, Guy Robinson, Anne Rowse, Roger Steele

This obituary is posted with the permission of The Dominion Post where it appeared on 17 November 2018.

Featured image: Douglas Wright, 2006. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

 

Ghost Dance by Douglas Wright

For other posts on this website about Douglas Wright, including reviews about some of the works mentioned above, follow this link. See too the review of Douglas Wright’s memoir, Ghost Dance, also mentioned above, at this link.