Coming soon to New Zealand is ‘Venus Rising,’ the first ballet show back on stage amid a global pandemic. Louise chats with UoA’s very own internationally renowned performer and choreographer who has created her own piece for the production; Sarah Foster-Sproull.
As a Lecturer of Dance Studies, Sarah is proof that talent can be sitting right under our noses within our large university whānau. For 2017-19, she received the title of Creative New Zealand’s Choreographic Fellow and is also the Artistic Director at her own company, Foster Group Dance. Recently, she has taken on a new role as Choreographer in Residence for the RNZB, and is the first woman to do so.
“It’s crazy given that it’s 2020, but that’s the reality,” she says, reflecting on her pioneering achievement for her gender. Socially, ballet is perceived as a female-dominated industry as women are featured leaping across stages in feminine grace. But by all means, this does not mean that it’s a profession promoting feminism, as men are traditionally known to have roles of leadership as directors and choreographers.
Sarah praises RNZB for its inclusivity regarding being the first female in this position, and specially mentions Artistic Director, Patricia Barker, and her vision supporting feminism within the company. “This year, prior to the whole COVID-19 situation, Patricia had programmed an entire year of female choreographer work, [making us] the first in the world to do that. So being part of that big vision is very cool.”
I asked if she, too, includes that vision in her works. “As a feminist, that is definitely in my approach to working with diverse communities of students and practitioners within my work.” She explains how she incorporated a feminist approach in the performance Orchids from her own company. “I made an all-female work of performers from the ages of 9-60. It’s an intergenerational cast of all females,” which was well received from all audiences.
Being a choreographer wasn’t always on the charts for Sarah, having enjoyed an 18-year career as a professional dancer. I wondered if there was a defining moment when she decided to be a choreographer, to which she replies it was just a gentle recognition upon the opportunities she undertook.
“I paid the bills by being a performer, freelancing, teaching, doing other complementary jobs, as well as building a portfolio career, but I made the transition to a choreographer through a series of pull opportunities that I had when I was living in the UK. I then moved back to NZ to focus on my choreographic practice and rein my skill a little bit.”
When I ask her if she ever had any doubts, Sarah admits she had been close to taking a few wrong turns. “Oh yeah, I mean, I thought it would be an excellent idea to go to law school instead of being a dance practitioner. So, I went to law school, started taking classes and I absolutely loved it! But I did have a moment of going, ‘oh, I have already given 15 years of my life being a dancer and I did that for a reason’. So, I transitioned back.”
She pauses to reflect on what she is doing now, “I went into postgraduate research as an adult student and I now teach undergraduate and postgraduate students. I believe that everyone has an individual pathway and it’s really important to think clearly about what you want to achieve and how best to achieve that. For some people it’s by going straight through undergraduate to postgraduate and for others it requires a break or some travels for life experience.”
Given the current global pandemic makes travel infeasible, Sarah instead recommends to take this opportunity in the world’s pause to invest more time into education and learning. “A lot of students want to travel and perform, but if they can’t do that for the short time being, then it’s fine to stay and continue to study for a while. I don’t see the harm in that. In fact, I see it as being incredibly smart.”
Since RNZB utilizes homegrown talent, this breadth of travel was not needed in order to quickly get the company up and running again following national outbreak control. “I went to Wellington for two weeks to make it work,” Sarah explains. “The company was pretty proactive about getting back into theatres for live performances, so it’s pure luck that I get to be involved in a company that is so proactive with their approach.”
She pauses to reflect before responding about the process of creating her own piece in Venus Rising; Ultra Folly, amid peculiar circumstances. “It was a very fast process initially, so we had a couple of different approaches. I got together some of my friends in Auckland who are professional dancers from a range of backgrounds. It was a combination of a ballet dancer, one hip hop dancer and one contemporary dancer.”
“We took some visual inspiration and made some material around those ideas before teaching it to the dancers. I also had some of my own choreography that I added, and even some of the dancers made up their own choreography as well,” she says. “It was a very swift process of whipping it into shape and putting it into order before refining and developing the content. Talking about scenes, layering and details.”
Venus Rising was not the only project she was working on at the time. She casually mentions Zoom issues while communicating choreography for the City Ballet in New York. “We are on Zoom, and I am in my office trying to conduct rehearsals – it’s quite classic. This morning we had every technical issue possible! We conducted rehearsal over Zoom and that crashed, then WhatsApp, which crashed, and went back to WhatsApp which sometimes worked and then didn’t.” We laughed at this together with a mutual sense of recollection for the feeling and sense of frustration when technology isn’t going our way.
It made me think whether given the circumstances, the whole ballet would be conducted virtually? “Yes!” she clarifies. “There’s lots of things going on with communications in the Zoom rehearsals because not only are we in different time zones, we are in erratically different environments,” she exclaims. “The dancers were on the rooftop of an apartment in New York, I’m in my office. My accent is very Kiwi so the dancers have to keep asking me to clarify what I’m saying, which meant I had to keep texting in my instructions.”
She reflects on the experience and states that “it’s a big experiment but what I understand about making choreography is that everything is a big experiment, and you just figure out how to do it by doing it.” Which is exactly the attitude we should all have in such unprecedented times.
This brought me to my last question citing if Sarah believed that anyone can dance. “Absolutely! The dance study programme is a big family and really embraces all styles of dance from all backgrounds. I’ve been witness to the fact that anyone can dance through having seen it with my own eyes. It’s a way of expressing – you just need to find your dance!”
Show some support for Sarah and RNZB by purchasing tickets on sale for Venus Rising now. It arrives in Auckland from the 17-19th September at Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Square. Don’t miss it!