Sunday Star Times

June 20, 1999

Shall we dance?
by Linda Herrick

 Lucy Lawless comes to the rescue

Contributed by Liz

Xena: Warrior Princess to the rescue ... as usual.  But this script features a real-life saga in which television heroine Lucy Lawless springs to action to help save an emaciated underdog called dance.  Butts are kicked - but they're from her chequebook.
It all started when New Zealand dancer-choreographer Shona McCullagh had a dream - to tour the country with a retrospective of some of her best works; dances which have won her plaudits around the world.  International darling she may be, but back home the dancing queen hit the usual obstacle.  The buck had stopped here.

Creative New Zealand offered $60,000 to McCullagh for her Human Garden dance company's proposed Mad Angels tour.  "That really only covered the initial rehearsal set-up and marketing costs," says McCullagh. I felt totally disheartened about the whole thing.  I've done it in Auckland, I'm happy to do it here again, but really my aim was to get it out there."

Where to turn?  Two other options existed: corporate sponsorship or patronage from a wealthy individual, a common source of arts support in countries like the United States but still a rarity here.  The idea of asking a person for money was unthinkable to McCullagh at first.  "It seems sponsors can be unreliable, although Telecom has totally impressed the dance world with its support for Michael Parmenter's Jerusalem," she says. 

"Then a wealthy friend of mine said, 'Why don't you people write to people like me and ask us for money?' I said, 'Oh, that would be so embarrassing.' But I really wanted to tour the show so I wrote to about 80 people, and about five came back and said they would help.  It should be the Lucy Lawless New Zealand tour really."

McCullagh and Lawless are more professional acquaintances than friends, with the choreographer having worked with the actor on Xena.  But they have more in common lately - pregnancy.  "We've been doing a bit of female pregnant bonding," says McCullagh, who was due last week but hopes the baby won't arrive - ideally - until after Wednesday's opening night at Auckland's Sky City.

Babies don't perform to schedule but her dancers and crew are on their toes and backs, and heads, and stomachs for the show which comprises a mix of dance, film, music - and a new solo by grand meister Douglas Wright.

"All the pieces in the Mad Angels show are existing works, some from as way back as 1990 - an excerpt from a show called Flareup which I did with Six Volts," explains McCullagh.  "There's this really mad Beer Crates Dance which is an iconic New Zealand drinking dance.  It's the only anarchic anti-religious piece in the programme all the other pieces have this connection with angelic inspiration."

Such as the opener, Mary Mary, a duet first performed in 1993, about the relationship between the baby Jesus and his mother - who has doubts about the advantages of immaculate conception.  McCullagh says the work was inspired after visiting galleries in Europe in '92 when she saw "over 1000 Madonna and Child paintings

"In all of them Jesus, despite the fact he was only a baby, was enormous, and she was this little person waving plaintively in the background.  Did anyone ever ask her what she wanted?  The Angel Gabriel came to her and said to her this will be, but her opinion was never sought.  This piece is about that and her discovering her own sexuality.  She had this pregnancy implanted without any pleasure at all, which I thought was deeply unfair.  In this, Jesus has this inflated ego and is really vain."

Mad Angels will also give audiences the chance to revisit - or in many cases, see for the first time - McCullagh's acclaimed short film Hurtle, which won her the Choreography for the Camera Award at the 1998 Moving Pictures International Film Festival ' Ontario. "Hurtle had this incredible international life and sold to all these TV channels all over the world. I felt a lot of people hadn't seen it here and that it was a neat idea to screen in the middle of a live performance programme."

The inclusion of Wright in the show is a privilege, she says' "Watching Douglas's solo yesterday - in it he gets tired and instead of pretending not to be tired he pants and his chest heaves, and for some reason it is incredibly moving.  He is being mortal, vulnerable."

That's what dance should be all about.  "Are we getting better at expressing emotion as a nation?  We are - but I still think a part of the work of artists is to encourage it or expose it.  That's what making good art is about, something simple - the tiny things, the tiny emotions that are quite profound rather than the grandiose ideas and the huge philosophies."

The second half of the show, the full piece Mad Angels, encapsulates all that, she believes.  With music by her partner John Gibson, with recorded yodelling by Lynda Topp, it is a beautiful, poignant work based on the Duino Elegies by German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke. 

The yodellings are not Lynda Topp in comedic mode (she also yodelled at McCullagh and Gibson's wedding).  "It's not country yodelling, it's very yearning callings.  The piece is based on what happens when people hit a power pole and what I’d imagine is the initial shock those dead people would feel as they make the transition from this world to whatever happens next.  In it, people are revisiting an event in their life, in this case their childhood.  For the male solo it is simply, how much he loved his mother.  It's extraordinary to see a big man own up to the fact he loved his mother."

The show has also given McCullagh to reflect on a love and loss of her own: that of former partner and great friend, the late Auckland photographer Peter Molloy, who took the poster photos of the dancer with her head surrounded by a tiara of sparklers.  Molloy died of cancer a year ago.  "I've been thinking about Peter a lot - I miss him terribly." She laughs as she reminisces.  "That halo shot which is on the posters - Peter and I went out into Western Springs Park one night and I set fire to my hair. I made this crown of sparklers and he did this really long time exposure but I had to stay there so long my hair caught on fire. I feel happy and proud I'm using his pictures - Peter's still with us."