Daring Douglas Wright
Revered New Zealand dancer and choreographer Douglas Wright died in Auckland on November 14, 2018, aged 62. He was “undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s most magnificent and important artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” writes dance historian Marianne Schultz in an obituary in DANZ.
“Douglas traversed the fields of dance, literature and visual arts, making significant and unique contributions in all these forms, changing the way we move, see, think and feel. He created the most astonishing dance works ever to grace New Zealand and overseas stages, each with its own searing, indelible imagery and breath-taking choreography and dancing. His contribution to dance in New Zealand, first as a performer, then as a choreographer and mentor, is unparalleled. His creative output, as a writer and visual artist will influence generations of people to come.”
Schultz’s obituary records Wright’s journey from competitive gymnastics as a boy growing up in Tuakau to the appeal of drugs and alcohol and finding himself in dance with the legendary Limbs Dance Company, his attitude that won him a place in New York’s Paul Taylor Dance Company and international touring on the world’s major dance stages, his return to New Zealand in 1987 to establish his own dance company, and his writing and visual art.
Calling him a “dreamer of dances,” dance writer Jennifer Shennan in Stuff records that Wright’s “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.”
In a Noted tribute “to the dexterous, powerful and vulnerable Douglas Wright,” dancer and choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull recalls “the furious work ethic in the studio, his unrelenting drive for perfection, and the practice, practice, practice. Douglas was incredibly specific about the detail within a movement, and each gesture or inflection was deftly choreographed. His conversational and gestural movement material was mixed with explosive jumping. Cutting through space like a banshee was a trademark. As dancers, we were always 100% with him, ready to develop, refine, and push his ideas as far as possible. I was in awe of his choreographic crafting, and attention to detail.”
Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill interviewed Douglas Wright in September 2017. The 30 minute conversation navigates the 40th anniversary of Limbs, his late 80s HIV diagnosis, managing depression and disappointment, the complex and despairing process of creating and producing his evening-length dance-theatre works, Doris Lessing, and Kilda Northcott as his muse, of whom he wrote in his memoir Ghost Dance, “She danced in the same way the Mona Lisa smiles – calm, inscrutable, seeing nothing, seeing everything – and when she moved you couldn’t take your eyes off her.”
During its life the Douglas Wright Dance Company involved hundreds of theatre artists including dancers, performers, artistic collaborators and company staff, composers and musicians, lighting, set and costume designers, filmmakers, photographers, engineers, technicians and stage operators, producers, tour managers, crew, publicists and assistants and a family of supporters. For everyone, working with Douglas was profound and a privilege.
During his five years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company Douglas toured throughout the U.S. including seasons in New York, and the world, performing in leading theaters. Building on his early choreographic experiences at Limbs, he created Faun Variations as part of a company showcase of choreographies by its dancers. Writing in The New York Times in April 1987, Anna Kisselgoff wrote:
“The premiere of ”Faun Variations” by Douglas Wright was greeted with an outburst of cheers…Mr. Wright’s quirky poetic animal quality – which can look both charming and prickly at the same time – was perfect for his theme. With his mobile, witty face and a torso that undulates when least expected, Mr. Wright suggests a domesticated wild creature – wild nonetheless. The physical maneuvers in the choreography are startling. A sketch for the faun’s expected archaic profile turns into a springboard for a more three-dimensional beast. He rotates a shoulder, rolls on the floor and springs up – one arm shooting up after the other, one knee drawn up in the air and shooting out a leg after the other. There are cartwheels and an emphasis on back falls accomplished with a roll to the shoulder, as if the animal in this half-human creature were seeking the earth.”
Paul Taylor died in New York City on August 29, 2018.
Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1998 for services to dance and in 2000 was an inaugural Laureate of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. Douglas Wright Dance productions have been supported by Creative New Zealand and private donors.
SweeneyVesty, publishers of nzedge.com, produced the first presentation of the Douglas Wright Dance Company in New Zealand in 1989, How On Earth, in 1989, and sponsored Leanne Pooley’s 2003 full length documentary Haunting Douglas and the 2006 national tour of Black Milk.
Image Source: Photograph of Douglas Wright (uncredited) from the cover of Haunting Douglas
A key reading of Douglas is the essay by Garry Lester The lie of the land: grounding the work of Douglas Wright in Aotearoa-New Zealand originally published in 2004 in Dance Rebooted: Initializing The Grid. Garry Lester is an Australian performance educator, choreographer, performer and academic.
Douglas, both as a person and as an artist, represents a kind of paradox of intensities from this respect and faith in the natural world in a loving sense as opposed to this rage and anger about the way human beings treat each other. I see him as a kind of dark angel that can open portals to our enjoyment and our perception of what life is but he’s got this terrible anger and fury that seeps out of his work. (McCullagh 2003)
The hills were so attenuated and grave they were like the visual equivalent of the opening theme in a Bach fugue, slowed down by years. As their rhythm deepened, the dark, lowhanging curtain of mist lifted slightly, sounding a note of muted colour: white, iron grey, sullen brown, and the blackest black in blackdom. When the horizon was just one long inheld breath, a ray of light thrust its arm through the clouds and painted a fleeting patch a kind of venomous green. The whole space seemed to ring with a strict joy, like the last metallic shivers of a struck bell. It was as if some vengeful God had just left. (Wright, 2003)
Why does he call all this “Forever”? When asked this, Wright stands up, spontaneously, and shows a short sequence from the work. His body pulls itself cautiously upwards, with heels teetering as if the feet are trying to leave the ground. “That’s hope”, he says, smiling. “There’s always something that stays behind, that keeps going, even after death”. He had a look at Buddhism and Vipassana meditation, taking part in two 10-day retreats. He was fascinated by their attentiveness, the concentration on breathing. But then he decided not to leave his everyday desires, anxieties and projections behind. “If I am solely in the moment, truly at one with my breathing, what can I show on the stage?”, he asks, joking. He keeps going by using contradictions, the power of the paradox, as in the poem of Emily Dickinson, quoted in “Forever”: ‘I felt a funeral in my brain’. “That’s like a koan”, says Wright. And he continues—“The truth shines out through paradoxes”. Here is a man living a quiet life, isolated at the other end of the world, yet who presents us today with one of the world’s most impressive works. (Bucher 1995)
For me, when it works, it’s like you’re on fire. You feel like you’re incandescent, actually, and that it’s reaching everybody. It’s like you’re beaming out all this stuff and you’re in relationship to a lot of things that are invisible. It’s also like you’re in the eye of the storm….it’s a privilege to be in that moment because you receive so much. (Wright in Legat, 1996)
See also obituary of Sue Paterson (1953-2018) Limbs Dance Company GM, mentor and confidant of Douglas, at nzedge.com
See also An interview with Douglas Wright (1996) by Raewyn White
Radio New Zealand has a gallery of 25 Douglas Wright drawings in pen of heads from his series The Envoys. “This series of imaginary portraits, created over a year, evolved out of a prolonged search. After labyrinthine experiments I had one of those Eureka moments as the conception and execution of what is now drawing no.1 occurred simultaneously. Primordial, tribal, futuristic, humanoid, the heads proceeded out of my unconscious, wearing their nervous systems on the outside. I had not seen their like before, but there was a whiff of recognition. They are ‘memories of the future.’” May 2017.
Archival content 2006-2011 of productions and books by Douglas Wright is at http://www.douglaswright.net including the following content.
Black Milk NZ Tour 2006
Wright’s masterpiece of layered meaning Jennifer Shennan – Dominion Post
Malevolence Francesca Horsley – New Zealand Listener
Black Milk Sydney 2006
Searing images of darkness Deborah Jones – The Australian
A poem of love, cruelty and death Jill Sykes – Sydney Morning Herald
Rapt Auckland 2011
Monumental new dance John Daly-Peoples – National Business Review
Arts Festival Review: Rapt Bernadette Rae – New Zealand Herald
A night for humanity…A night for dancers Jack Grey – Theatre Review
Rapt by Douglas Wright Carrie-Rae Cunningham, dancestuff.co.nz
Ghost Dance 2004, Penguin Books
Ghost Dance by Douglas Wright David Eggleton – New Zealand Listener
Review by Richard Canning from 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (2009) foreword by renowned literary critic Harold Bloom. This volume contains essays by critics, public figures, and authors illuminating Douglas’ writing alongside literary giants Wilde, Woolf, Proust and Ginsberg.
Terra Incognito 2006, Penguin Books
Dance to the death with death, and beyond Bernadette Rae – New Zealand Herald
Black Milk, 2009, photographs by John Savage, text by Douglas Wright and Leonard Wilcox, Potton & Burton
Elegy 1993 Producer/Director Chris Graves
Hey Paris 1987 Director Gregor Nicholas, Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh
This collaboration between dancer Douglas Wright and director Gregor Nicholas was one of a series of music and movement-based shorts that established Nicholas’s reputation. A dramatised film noir sequence leads to a cross-dressing dance duel between Wright and Debbie McCulloch, shifting between an Orwellian cityscape and retro nightclub. Wright choreographs the bodies and Nicholas the bold and sensual visual rhythms in black and white.
Gloria 1990 Top Shelf Productions Director Alun Bollinger, Producer Vincent Burke
In this film, choreographer Douglas Wright’s work Gloria is captured on camera by Alun Bollinger. Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589, a hymn praising the birth of Christ, plays behind a yellow and black flurry of limbs and gestures. The journey from gymnastic leaps to rest, marks the cycle of life. The work was shot soon after Wright returned from his dance OE, and formed the Douglas Wright Dance Company. The screening attracted attention from morals groups concerned about nudity on television.
I Am a Dancer! 1990 Top Shelf Productions: Director Monique Oomen, Producer Vincent Burke
In 1989 dancer Douglas Wright returned home from a dance OE to choreograph and form his own company. This TV profile, marking the premiere of his work Gloria, looks back on a late blossoming career that began at 21 — when he took up ballet to overcome a heroin addiction. After becoming a star with Limbs, Wright moved on to prestigious troupes in London and New York. Now, as opening night looms, he is acutely aware of the danger of pushing his dancers too hard physically as he fights to get the best out of them on an ambitious, highly demanding piece.
Haunting Douglas 2003, Spacific Films, director and producer Leanne Pooley, producer Shona McCullagh
From Tuakau New Zealand to the stages of New York, Douglas’s journey has included drugs, alcohol, illness and accolades. Haunting Douglas is a portrait of a great artist and features excerpts from his extraordinary body of work. “Wright expresses himself in bitingly enunciated paradoxes, reaching us again and again, now that his body refuses to dance, with the vital, lucid artistry of his words. I can think of no more appreciative, perceptive or powerful documentary portrait of an artist in New Zealand than this.” – NZ International Film Festival
Douglas Wright / TVNZ 2005
Talk about dancer and choreographer Douglas Wright, and words like genius, tortured and provocative spring to mind. He’s one of our most famous dancers, but the past two years have been his blackest, culminating in an attempt to take his own life last February. But now Douglas Wright has regained his creative passion. His second memoir is about to be released and a new dance, Black Milk, opens in Invercargill on Saturday. At 49, he tells Robyn Janes, he’s finally happy.