NAC Dance: The New Zealand Dance Company debuts in Ottawa

A scene from Sigan, one of three dances being performed by the New Zealand Dance Company in Ottawa. Photo: John McDermott

The New Zealand Dance Company is making its National Arts Centre debut next week. Before the trio of dances is revealed in performance, the artistic director of NZDC Shona McCullagh answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me a bit about The New Zealand Dance Company.

A. Kia Ora Peter, lovely to e-meet you.

We launched publicly just over seven years ago, in August 2012, at the Aotea Centre in Auckland, New Zealand/Aotearoa. We started NZDC because I believe that New Zealand and international audiences deserve to see the most exquisite dancers our country produces, and because high-calibre New Zealand contemporary dancers deserve to be able to work in their own country, full-time.

The driver for the establishment of this company was to grow the art-form, grow the infrastructure for contemporary dance and grow the audience. At its heart, NZDC strives to be a hotbed of creative collaboration, a safe place to be artistically brave and to present compelling work that moves and inspires our dedicated and growing audience.

Additionally, I wanted to ensure the company could be a New Zealand ambassador on global stages such as NAC’s. To date, we’ve had five international tours to seven different countries in seven years, Canada marks our sixth tour and eighth country.

Shona McCullagh. Photo: John McDermott

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I’ve always had a passion for music and dance, despite starting serious training later than most girls at the age of 11. All New Zealanders are migrants, but unlike our beautiful indigenous people, many of those of us who are fourth or fifth generations from a hybrid cultural background (mine is Irish, Scottish, English and German) have lost touch with our cultural roots. For me dance is about finding the voice of your identity and experiencing others.

I graduated from the New Zealand School of Dance and danced with D’Arc Swan Theatre Company, Limbs, Douglas Wright Dance Company (where I was also Associate Artistic Director) and my own company, The Human Garden. I’ve been choreographing and producing works for more than 35 years, having created with, and for, theatre companies, dance companies, as well as numerous writers, actors, composers and designers. I’ve had the honour of creating award winning films that are internationally celebrated and was also the Head Choreographer of the 2011 Rugby World Cup Opening Ceremony. Fun fact: I was choreographer for Lord of the Rings and King Kong amongst many other film and television productions.

Q. What inspires you?

A. Dancers. One of the human race’s finest tribes. Sensitive, intelligent, trustworthy, instinctual, and utterly dedicated to the achievement of the whole as well as self-determined excellence. I also believe in the the power of dance to communicate succinctly, to transform lives, to influence young people positively, and to represent our culture and identity eloquently in an international language .

Q. This presentation is a trio of works. Why these three?

A. Our program includes works created beneath the southern skies – speaking of time, ritual and the force of nature. In Transit and The Geography of An Archipelago were commissioned for our Lumina programme in 2015 and Sigan was commissioned for our Kiss The Sky Tour in 2017. 

A scene from In Transit by Maori choreographerLouise Potiki Bryant. Photo: John McDermott

Q. Tell me more about each starting with Archipelago.

A. American/Dutch choreographer Stephen Shropshire’s The Geography of An Archipelago is a striking trio set to a powerful, percussive score by composer Chris O’Connor that includes the haunting sounds of the taonga pūoro (Māori traditional instruments) and also Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This piece has toured with us for a few years and has a powerful, timeless message. Shropshire’s idea while creating this work was the sense of exile moving to and living in a new country and navigating the internal struggles of yearning to belong that follow. He also considered the colonial oppression of Indigenous people in this work.

In Transit, choreographed by Louise Potiki Bryant, with composer AV designer Paddy Free (Pitch Black), explores the ambiguous and illuminating liminal space in the performance of life rituals and the traces we leave behind in the spaces in-between. In Transit started from the thought that life could be viewed as a conscious series of transitions between one state to another, as the mundane and the sacred intersect in our lives. It also draws on Māori mythology and uses the dried stalk of a native flax plants as weapons, wings and to connect us between Papatūānuku (Mother Earth) and Ranginui (Father Sky).

Korean choreographer Kim Jae Duk’s quartet Sigan, (Time), draws from the dual themes of meditation and attack, with a dynamic score created by Jae Duk himself featuring traditional Korean instruments: jang-gu (drum), kkwaenggwari (small gong) and jing (large gong) within a contemporary composition.

Q. One of the pieces is by a Maori choreographer and you also acknowledge the the Ngāti Whātua Iwi (tribe), on whose ancestral land The New Zealand Dance Company is located in Tāmaki-Makaurau, Auckland, Aotearoa. Why?

A. We want this company to be a vanguard of New Zealand culture and identity. Put simply, this cannot be done without acknowledging, honouring, and respecting the culture and original peoples of our beautiful land, Aotearoa. We also want to provide many opportunities for indigenous artists – dancers, choreographers, designers, composers to be supported by NZDC to develop their practice and have their work presented on local, national and global stages.

A scene from The Geography of An Archipelago. Photo: Caroline Bindon

Q. Are you aware of Indigenous culture in Canada? 

A. Being very respectful of  the indigenous Māori culture in my own country has given me more perception of different indigenous cultures around the world. I’m aware of and acknowledge Canada’s First Nation peoples and know there are many strong connections between New Zealand and Canadian indigenous artists. Louise Potiki Bryant for example is collaborating with Santee Smith, and Māori dancer Eddie Elliott has been dancing with Red Sky for the last couple of years. We share him. Many Kiwis deeply respect and appreciate nature and the land we live on. For many, that also means the people who came before us and whom we are blessed to share it with.

Q. The NAC has recently opened a national Indigenous Theatre. What do you think of this idea?

A. This is such an important concept and achievement. Having a place to share stories and art is imperative to keeping a culture alive. Performing arts is one of our most effective forms of passing down history which is crucial to protecting rituals and traditions. New Zealand does not have a national bricks and mortar theatre like this however there are wonderful indigenous festivals, creation houses and companies. Maybe one day we will have a dedicated Indigenous Theatre too…

Q. Is this your first Canadian tour? What do you think?

A. Yes, this is actually our first tour in North America and we’re thrilled to start with your beautiful country, whom we consider our sibling of the North. Canadians are so welcoming and friendly and I love the way you say “out.” We’re very grateful for the invitation and honoured to be a part of such a wonderful arts centre’s  season. We’re hopeful that NZDC is able to come back soon and share more of our work with Canada.

Ngā mihi

New Zealand Dance Company
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: Oct. 8 & 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.