Choreographic award boosts future opportunities for Dance Studies lecturer

27 November 2017
"Between There and Now", choreographed by Sarah Knox, performed by members of the Royal New Zealand Ballet company. Image: Jeremy Brick.
"Between There and Now", choreographed by Sarah Knox, performed by members of the Royal New Zealand Ballet company. Image: Jeremy Brick.

The opportunity to create a piece with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) was not an opportunity Dance Studies lecturer Sarah Knox could pass up. “I grew up doing ballet, I was a ballet major at the New Zealand School of Dance, and as a contemporary dancer I’ve always had strong ballet technique,” she says. “I saw this as my moment to create a piece with ballet dancers, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time.” Despite her background in the discipline, Sarah was surprised to be announced as the winner of the 2017 Harry Haythorne Award, for her piece Between There and Now.

Now in its third year, the award honouring the former RNZB artistic director was open to choreographers outside the company for the first time. After seeing a call for entries on social media, Sarah jumped at the chance to return to her roots. She was the most contemporary choreographer amongst the finalists, with three others from within the ballet company and another who was previously part of the RNZB. “I was definitely the most left field person,” laughs Sarah.

After being selected to participate in the award, turnaround times for the submission and creation of a piece provided a logistical challenge. With the RNZB based in Wellington, Sarah had to balance her time with the company with her academic responsibilities at the University. “At the end of the process, I sat back and thought, ‘Wow, I made a 14 minute piece in just five days!’ That was epic.” Her first flying visit to Wellington involved watching the company in technique class followed by a workshop where she was able to put the dancers through some of her own movements to see how they embodied her ideas. The process allowed her to select her dancers, and the group then moved into two days of rehearsal before Sarah returned to Auckland.

The following week’s trip involved intensive rehearsals, with a final run through on the end of only their fifth day together. “The dancers were fantastic to work with,” Sarah recalls. “I work in a really collaborative way, and some of them were apprehensive about that as a creative process. I don’t prescribe all of the movement for my dancers. It is my job to foster their creativity and build relationships with them to make them feel comfortable generating new movement.” She also liaised with the RNZB’s costume department in this time, an unexpected perk which brought added elements to the world she was creating.

Between There and Now started out reflecting a central theory of Sarah’s current doctoral research. “Acculturation theory looks at what people do socially when they enter into a new cultural context,” she explains. “Instead of culture, I’m looking at movement as a language, and how that shifts or changes. Do people adapt to the movement language of others, and reject their own, or try and combine the two? This idea was my starting point, which morphed into a piece about power and coercion.” The end piece reflected elements of Sarah’s personal experience in the dance industry and in life, focusing on how the dancers interacted as a group and as individuals.

Sound is an important complement to choreography, and Sarah was keen to use the work of Wellingtonian Rhian Sheehan. “His music is stunning,” Sarah says. “He makes beautiful atmospheric soundscapes. I’ve used his work before, and he actually came to one of the shows. He told me he was really impressed with my work and how the dancers managed to find rhythm against music that basically has no rhythm. It was really cool to have that acknowledgement from him.”

While the award came with a monetary prize funded by the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand, Sarah says the biggest reward is the validation of her choreographic work and the boost it provides for future opportunities. “As a choreographer, I’m somewhere between emerging and mid-career. I may not have made a huge amount of work, but the work I have made has been spread over 15 years,” she says. “I’m hoping I can now work with the company again, and I have plans to pitch some work to a few other companies in Australia.”

Sarah’s focus for 2018 will switch to completing her PhD, however she will be choreographing a piece for the third year Dance Studies cohort to take on tour to Myanmar, Singapore and China. Her choreographic research is one strand of her academic career, and she aims to develop and engage the dancer-centred approach (developed within her masters research) in both her research and teaching practice. “I try to provide as much opportunity for the dancer’s agency as possible. They need to make their own decisions and be brought into the process as humans, rather than simply dancing bodies,” Sarah says. “I try and teach the students that we don’t need to suffer for our art. Imagine how amazing the art could be if everyone felt amazing – free, respected and nurtured.”

Sarah thanks the RNZB and the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand for their support throughout this project.

Sarah has recently been on tour with Dance Studies students in China and you can follow her academic adventures on her Instagram account.