The body is not given in advance

Carol Brown: Sue Healey, Virtuosi

Jeremy Nelson, Virtuosi, Sue Healey

Jeremy Nelson, Virtuosi, Sue Healey

If dancing is a state of unstable flux in which there is no fixed identity, then reflections on the experience of dancing through documentary film are one way to narrativise the feeling of what happens in/through dancing, as well as to capture dancers’ moving identities in the environments they inhabit.

In Virtuosi we hear/see eight exceptional performers—Mark Baldwin, Craig Bary, Lisa Densem, Raewyn Hill, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Jeremy Nelson, Ross McCormack and Claire O’Neil—articulate their responses to Sue Healey’s provocation, “Why Dance?” If, as she explains, “the core of the movement experience is movement and being moved,” how do environment, familial habitat and childhood memories of place inform the movers we become? Virtuosi is a feature length documentary that addresses this question through a series of portraits of New Zealand-born dancers and choreographers who left home to pursue their vocations around the world.

Each of the artists has achieved extraordinary things in the world of contemporary dance. Through this film audiences are invited to witness their corporeal signatures up close, and contemplate the fluidity of their moving identities as these have been forged in the precarious conditions of a globalised contemporary dance field.

The eight portraits in Virtuosi follow an itinerary that journeys to Berlin, London, New York, Sydney, Melbourne and Townsville. In tracking between places and subjects, interiors and exteriors, each becomes a form of poetic enquiry into the motivations, genealogies, influences and places that shape a dancer’s identity.


Sarah-Jayne Howard, Virtuosi, Sue Healey

Sarah-Jayne Howard, Virtuosi, Sue Healey

Exit to connect

Economic hardship (Sarah-Jayne Howard), displacement and alienation (Raewyn Hill), loneliness (Ross McCormack) and the risks of failure (Claire O-Neil) form a complex backstory to these portraits, one which can undeniably be extrapolated to other dancers from other countries. But what coheres and sticks is the poignancy of leaving a relatively small country for one that is much bigger or at least more populous in the pursuit of that elusive quality of dancing. These dancers and choreographers have built careers and fulfilled vocations in cities with populations the size of New Zealand. Underlining their determination, passion, drive and verve is a perception of necessity.

Getting on a plane and travelling to the other side of the world, or across the Tasman, can feel like fulfilling a familiar destiny (overseas remains de rigueur for many young people in New Zealand) but it can also be a way to feel connected to global trends in dance. I was struck by Mark Baldwin’s account of discovering Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage in a book in the library of the University of Auckland’s Elam Art School. Cunningham never visited New Zealand and his influence is surprisingly negligible given its impact elsewhere. It is as though New Zealand’s isolation left the resident dance community out of certain waves of postmodern influence which have proved so radical to shifts in dance practice in London, Melbourne, New York, Brussels and Berlin. Yet without drawing on the cliché of moving from hicksville to metropolis as yet another species of export commodity (Sarah-Jayne Howard does mention New Zealanders “leaping like lambs”), the film subtly exposes the complex cultural, physical and historical nuances of New Zealand’s bi-culturalism and how these ‘elsewheres’ benefit from the exchange.



Jeremy Nelson’s choreographic tactic of drawing influence from both the Scottish reels of his childhood and Maori whakairo carving patterns, suggests how a particularly New Zealand view of the world might conversely influence what happens in New York and Copenhagen through a feeling for the forms we inherit in a country that is founded on a treaty that recognises two different world views, M?ori and Pakeha. Similarly Mark Baldwin’s “strange memories” of Polynesian dancers in disciplined rows being like the rows of chorus dancers in a ballet speak of how imaginations nurtured in the Pacific might look back at the world, with its imperial legacies, differently.

The interview with Mark Baldwin, director of Rambert Dance Company, is further distinguished by his emphasis on the influence of composers and visual artists on his practice. New Zealand composers Gareth Farr and Jack Body are mentioned as feeding his imagination and we see Baldwin singing the notes of a score he is reading as he accounts for the importance of musical structures in what he makes. The film itself evidences the strength of what is for many choreographers a primary relationship with music in being framed by the jazz piano compositions of ex-pat New Zealander, Mike Nock.

Shot in a studio theatre environment, Ross McCormack’s mercurial dancing shape-shifts from haka to tui to hysterical male to bogan. His fluid metamorphoses signal a state of being that is unsettled, perturbed even, but peculiarly of this place of the long white cloud. I was reminded of the volatility of the physical geography we inhabit, the frequency of ruptures, quake swarms and geysers, how New Zealand in its relatively young geography breeds a geo-aesthetics that is spatially generous, bold, excessive even.

This is the beauty of Sue Healey’s film: if New Zealand artists are forced to become cultural exiles by virtue of their country’s remoteness and smallness, they also go on to contribute to the globalised dance and performance community in significant ways, bringing the smell of grass, the shape of the koru, the sounding of the tui, the energy of a volatile landscape with them.


Different ways of being

Lisa Densem seems to offer a counterpoint to this with her quiet, idiosyncratic, unexpected moves, her plays with reflections through windows and the mirroring of distant hands. Speaking English with a German accent, her adaptation to Berlin and a Germanic perspective is noted in how she perceives the New Zealand way of life on her return: “I had become really German.” In considering what it is to be virtuosic, the central thematic of the film, she proposes the virtuosity of improvisation, as that place where one is awake to the present and can try out different ways of being. Escaping the perceived excesses of a dominant hyperphysical style of modernist New Zealand choreography in the 90s she found in the European dance milieu a less desperate, less adrenalin-fuelled way of being a dancer. She was drawn to a quiet listening, a simpler physicality not driven by the emotions. Densem is but one example of how the film’s octagonal geometry opens multiple perspectives on New Zealand identity as it is reconfigured, translated and cross-contaminated in the adaptive process of moving elsewhere.


Place and the attuned body

The film also works through the portraiture of place as Healey homes in on the habitats, domestic and urban, of her subjects. Through tactile encounters with exteriors, the film reorders the dancers’ cities as places for sensorial interaction with surfaces, civic memorials, fountains, alleyways and perilous edges (fire escapes and beaches). Their homes, some provisional, others their workplaces, become scenographic sites for improvised play with memento mori, souvenirs and personal objects of attachment.

Healey gives these dance artists a voice and a place in the world that speaks to a globally mobilised milieu but that is also sensitive to the micro movements and attunements of bodies that respond to and challenge the environments they inhabit while carrying traces, resonances of the places they have left. The sense of the torso and spine, the use of gravity and weight and its corollary weightlessness; the corporeal signature of each dancer/choreographer can be read as a particular instantiation of their history and physical background. For M?ori the past is never behind, it is before us and we step into it. I had the sense of these performers carrying embodied memories in their bones like touchstones.


Returning to the source

Virtuosi is a film about Sue Healey refracted through eight portraits of dancers of her generation who, like her, left their home country. Cultural exile was a feature of Healey’s generation of dance artists, myself included. More recently this traffic has slowed due to the costs of long-haul travel (economically and environmentally) as well as a growth in opportunities to study dance and work in the dance field in Aotearoa (there are at least five contemporary dance companies in New Zealand including the newly launched New Zealand Dance Company). Among Virtuosi’s subjects there is much evidence of an increasing trend of return journeys: Craig Bary performed in the NZDC inaugural season; Bary and Sarah-Jayne Howard were in Douglas Wright’s Rapt; Claire O’Neil is now living in Auckland and studying for her Masters in Dance Studies; Lisa Densem recently choreographed We have been there with Footnote Dance Company in Wellington; Jeremy Nelson choreographed Six for Touch Compass in Auckland; and Raewyn Hill’s Mass was recently performed by Dancenorth in Wellington’s Downstage Theatre. All are healthy indicators of a flow of knowledge and exchange between New Zealand’s diasporic dance community and the local dance ecology.

If, as Laurence Louppe explains it, contemporary dance involves “becoming a body that is not given in advance,” Virtuosi is a film that goes some way towards understanding what that becoming involves, the pleasures and the perils of its reach and the poetry of its articulation.

Virtuosi, director, Sue Healey, photography Jud Overton, composer Mike Nock, 76 minutes, 2013

See Sue Healey’s full profile as part of realtimedance

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 30

© Carol Brown; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 February 2014