It’s tempting, when looking to praise a good book from someone who has made their mark in another sphere, to damn them with the feint praise of “natural writer”. As if their first love were the true one and its apparently effortless performance a glory hard-won from years of blood, sweat and tears; as if a convincing performance on the page, later in life, must be written off to instinctive gift, native talent, some blessing you were lucky enough to receive at birth that requires nothing more than sitting at a keyboard and tapping into.
The pages of dancer and choreographer Douglas Wright’s striking and unforgettable Ghost dance are punctuated with images of him in apparent flight, caught at the apex of a gravity-defying leap. His memoir – its airy structure, agile sentences, and arresting images – produces the same effect. Wright swoops back and forth over an intensely lived life, surveying it from miles overhead, then diving into painful close-up, sometimes doing both in the same paragraph. He tells us how he bullied and bent his full-grown body into complying with his dance ambitions. The ways he trained for his first book are not explicitly described but are nonetheless here – the avid reading, the admiration of and eventual friendship with Janet Frame. He even told one interviewer, “I do not enjoy a lot of dance. I prefer reading a book.”
Wright’s frankness – and his refusal to sit in judgment on his own or anyone else’s behaviour – might dismay the squeamish: the eager drug-taking, the even more eager forays into the gay underground, which began when he was 12, the committed adult thrill-seeking in New York clubs where:
half-naked men were lying, like tentacles, trying to attract someone better-looking than themselves … The unbridled testosterone, the eternal thumping music, the grunts and moans and sounds of flesh slapping and ramming together acted like a drug that changed my metabolism.
The witness of such scenes, and of others not so lurid, possesses a questioning intelligence in service to a keen sensibility. This fine balance is especially noticeable when he writes about the spirituality kicked into life by a diagnosis of HIV. For a New Zealander – and for all his international travels and successes, Wright is absolutely that – this probably takes more courage than writing about gay sex. But just before the first tremor of misgiving that you might be in the company of a New Age bunny, he undercuts his sense of wonder with something ironic, mundane, or funny.
Also woven through Ghost dance is a biography of Wright’s ex-lover and life-long friend Malcolm Ross: not Wright’s account of their relationship but an immersion in Ross’s own story – his unhappy childhood and escape into maps and bird-watching, his adult hatred of his parents, and other obsessions. That Wright so imaginatively enters Ross’s world in a genre devoted to the first person is poignant proof of his love. It’s also further evidence of Wright’s writerly consciousness, and suggests this book won’t be his last.
To précis Wright’s life is to do it and his memoir a crude injustice. He covers, though not in the order you might expect, his 50s and 60s suburban childhood; the blokish father appalled by a dancing son; the drugs; the coming out; the rediscovery of dance (prompted by Ross, who kept him while he attended two years of classes before joining Limbs); the going away to make good (with New York’s Paul Taylor Dance Company); the return; the diagnosis, and 14 frantic years’ work with the Douglas Wright Company; the spiritual awakening. Seen through Wright’s clear eye and told in his passionate but never self-pitying words, his story and his meditations on life and death are singular and enthralling, shot-through with the bitter-sweet wisdom of middle life.
A lesser man might have found in this life plenty of cause for bitterness, or at least energetic blame. Who would choose to grow up gay in post-war New Zealand, let alone, to want to dance? Imagine expecting to die of AIDs as all around you lovers, friends, and acquaintances are dying in what Wright bravely dubs “almost festive droves”? How galling to make your name in the northern hemisphere, to come back trailing clouds of glory and form a company only to discover it isn’t possible to pursue an international career from New Zealand because no one in the wider world wants to know. How cruel to have to abandon what you live for and live on without it.
After he was diagnosed in 1988 until he gave up dancing in 2002, he “reproduced like a man with an urgent deadline.” He thinks of works choreographed in that period as his children, given birth to in pain and joy: “Although most of my offspring are now deceased, some are only sleeping, yet others were stillborn, but they were all given equal attention. I think this talent for self-dramatisation,” he goes on, instantly undercutting what might seem grandiose, “I get from my father who was an extremely butch drama-queen.”
Wright might have died a glamorous young man; instead he is robbed of a quick death by modern medicine: “The slow-breaking news of my possible reprieve caused me to begin, perversely, to secretly mourn a death I felt cheated of.” How complex this is, and, yes, perverse. How endearingly human.
By the time I’d read Ghost dance twice, I felt Wright possessed not just two gifts but a third, which has been the source of the dancing and the writing. He has a heroic vulnerability coupled with a zest for life that makes the traditional Man Alone seem a hopeless wuss. It’s not that Wright has never been despairing or fearful; it’s that no matter what the odds, he has been his own man. You sense what’s kept him going from a very early age is a streak of determined individuality, a devotion to dancing to his own tune. Perhaps this talent is the innate one.
Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books.