It's a rapt: Douglas Wright on his new work and his old illness

by Francesca Horsley / 19 March, 2011
Illness has sapped choreographer Douglas Wright's energy levels, but he was determined to complete his celebratory new work.
Sitting inside on a still hot afternoon, Douglas Wright pauses for a moment, to think, to draw on his cigarette. We are talking about his new dance work, rapt. Through the open door, the quiet is broken by bird song from the nearby bush reserve.

The solitary call captures the deep reflective vein of Wright's life. It is apt, too, because, as he explains, rapt's major character is a bird-headed creature.

"It goes back to the Egyptian god Horus, a hawk-headed half-human deity. It is a metaphor for some being that is half in a dream world or half in our imaginations."

Wright, 54, speaks softly, choosing words with care. "I have also drawn on the Greek mythological gods Zeus and Ganymede, when Zeus turned himself into a bird because he fell in love with the young boy Ganymede and flew down from heaven, raped and abducted him. I suppose he abducted him first," he says with a laugh, "and then turned him into a god."

For years, Wright says, he has been interested in the image of a bird-headed human, particularly German artist Max Ernst's series of collages of bird heads on human bodies. "Then when the New Zealand painter Bill Hammond started working in that area, I was quite delighted because I loved it so much.

"To me, it is just ... I love birds - I have always loved birds."

rapt, a special commission by the Auckland Arts Festival, is Wright's 11th full-length work. Celebrated as one of New Zealand's major dance artists, his choreography and distinct "grounded into the floor" technique have influenced generations of dancers; his signature is ingrained into their movement and internationally recognised.

Wright's subject matter has always pushed boundaries, never more so than his 2006 Black Milk, a serious, at times dark, work. "I don't even think Black Milk is that dark, I think it is hilarious. There is a dark section but we live in a world that is so idiotic and hideous I don't think that you can seriously make art without tipping your hat towards that."

In a change of tack, rapt is celebratory, he says. "It's about rebirth and finding joy in movement. There are dark touches and difficulties hinted at, but I aim to resolve them through movement."

Wright has been living with Aids for 20 years and significant health issues strike hard on his energy levels, preventing him from dancing and affecting his ability to choreograph. "I was going to stop after Black Milk. Then I decided if I was going to have a last dance - and I'm not going to say this is my last dance - I would want it to be something a little more joyous."

Sign language is the basis for the movement in rapt. The process began when Wright invited two deaf people to teach the company the Lord's Prayer in sign. The dancers each took a sentence and transposed the sign language into dance movement; Wright then worked on these phrases. "The Lord's Prayer is the root of the whole dance."

He wanted "to extend the movement vocabulary I have had for years - it already looks quite different, there is this subtle change". Now, sitting with him, although he is spare and pale, his dance quickly comes to life when he shakily demonstrates a move.

Is he religious? A large religious painting hangs over the table where we sit. "I think that for most intellectuals, most people, God does not seem to be alive any more. I know there are a lot of new- age theories, some of which I believe in myself, but not many people believe there is a God and that when you die you go to heaven or hell.

"We are in an age where we have destroyed God; probably at the end of the 19th century with Nietzsche. So from a philosophical point of view, God hasn't been part of the human curriculum for over 100 years. Science and technology have taken over and we can see what that has done to the Earth," he says, laughing and drawing on his cigarette. "So the undertone is, 'Is there a God? Where is he/she?'"

The relationship between dance and spirituality is an intrinsic ingredient of ancient religious expression - one that Wright has drawn upon. "I always felt that when I was a performer I was dancing to something more than the audience - to something else - even if you just think about the universe or the sky at night - something huge."

How to place the free, spontaneous, "rapturous" expression of dance into present-day society posed

particular constraints; how to construct an appropriate contextual setting? "I was looking at the radical sects in India in the 15th and 16th centuries that would go around singing poetry to God, dancing and becoming full of ecstasy like the whirling dervishes. Groups like that have a direct experience; they feel that God is inside

them so they become drunk with God."

Wright's solution, as always, is a little disconcerting; rapt is loosely set in a psychiatric unit. "I was trying to think of a space where it would be natural for people to be dancing, apart from a dance studio. If you are walking down the street and you see someone by themselves dancing madly and they are not a dance student, maybe an older person or something, you think them mad or drunk. That was my connection. The title rapt," he adds, "is from the word rapture, but also rapt is the root of the word raptor - the hawk."

The religious theme is reiterated in Wright's choice of music, a selection from The Rosary Sonatas, by 17th-century Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist Heinrich Biber. "These are for solo violin and are absolutely exquisite. They are renowned for being wild, strange pre-Bach. I haven't used the whole thing because it is about two-and-a-half hours long - I have chosen about 10. The rest of the score is being written by New Zealand composer David Long, who composed for Black Milk."

As a dancer, Wright was extra-ordinarily gifted, combining dazzling virtuosity with intense emotion. At a recent celebration of his work, films of his early dances revealed once again this remarkable talent. While watching these, Wright says, he felt quite astonished at how he could dance.

"I haven't seen the Faun Variations for 10 years, I don't look at those things ever, so it was quite a shock because I don't think anybody can dance like that, I haven't seen anybody. I feel happy that it is on record. Elegy and Arc are really well-made films, the others are just reasonable videos, but they will last whereas the earlier generation of dancers doesn't have that."

Since Wright stopped dancing 10 years ago, he has turned his artistry and intellect to writing and painting. But despite acclaimed autobiographies, poetry and art exhibitions, dance is still his first love. "Dance is what I have always wanted to do. If I hadn't got this illness and attained what I wanted, I would have been doing dancing all the time. Probably I would never have written the books or painted."

The time spent reading and drawing deepens his choreography. "I use drawing as a way to free the pathway between my brain and my hand. I find if I can draw freely without any thought whatsoever, things start to surge through me that are all to do with movement inspiration. Wherever the pen goes, it's a gesture, it's a movement in space, however microscopic."

It is wiltingly humid and Wright is beginning to tire, the gaps between his replies stretching out. Will he have enough energy to see rapt through the final intense rehearsal period? "As I said, I would like to work in the studio every day - I have an enormous amount of difficulty with myself because I don't have that energy; I find it very painful.

"When I am working with the dancers, I can go for two or three hours and then have a break. I just need two of those a day. I find it exhausting but I love it so much - I get energy from the dancers because they give me a lot."

Wright has reassembled many of the outstanding cast from Black Milk. New Zealand Arts Laureate Sarah-Jayne Howard and Craig Bary are returning from Australia; Kelly Nash and Alex Leonhartsberger are there. Long-term Wright company member Kilda Northcott is also returning for the season.

"The dancers I work with I can't praise highly enough; they not only give me movement, but also inspiration and encouragement."

Wright says: "I have tried my hardest [in all my work] - that's all I can do - but I haven't got much in the tank now. I think of myself as having failed at my work."

Is this because he became sick?

"Probably, yeah. I'm happy with what I have been able to do but unhappy that's all I have been able to do. But as Samuel Beckett said, 'Fail again, fail better' - that's my motto." He laughs, drawing on his cigarette.

RAPT, Douglas Wright Dance, Civic Theatre, Auckland, March 16-19, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

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