The light, fantastic toe, Jennifer Shennan

Limbs Dance Company – Dance for All People, 1977–1989 
Marianne Schultz
Marianne Schultz in conjunction with DANZ, $40.00
ISBN 9780473407698

This book about Limbs, New Zealand’s brightest modern dance troupe, in its heyday in 1980s Auckland, is dedicated “for Sue Paterson, a dear and true friend”. Sue was the long-term General Manager of the company. How poignant, then, to be reviewing this book in the same week that we have farewelled the lifelong visionary arts administrator, who died after a prolonged illness that devastated her body, but never extinguished her spirit. Quite like Limbs really. Schultz has told the company’s story well, setting it in the context of its times. History will thank her for that and we should, too.

There was something irrepressibly sassy about the paired team of artistic director Mary-Jane O’Reilly, manager Sue Paterson, and the company they led for most of its years. This was a group of ace dancers who took their work, but not themselves, seriously. They were indomitable and tough, but they had fun, and made sure that we did, too. A rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule was maintained; they toured widely both here and abroad; and offered a huge range of community dance classes in Auckland. Limbs seemed like a family of individuals who shared the talent, the energy and the fun.

Such qualities are not so apparent in a standard ballet troupe in which the hierarchy of authority, directorate, management and board of governors can keep a tight rein on dancers’ esprit de corps. For most of its years, Limbs didn’t have a board, Sue Paterson was management, the dancers all chipped in and did what had to be done. End of story? Actually, ongoing story. Dorothea Ashbridge as ballet mistress (a singularly important position in any dance ensemble) was the pedigree teacher who could harness all that’s good from the discipline of ballet and leave aside the rest. Her tutelage of so many Limbs dancers, who subsequently went on to terrific careers as performers, choreographers and directors elsewhere, is testament to the pathways she offered them. A dancer of remarkable raw talent, Douglas Wright, a 21-year-old wild child, untutored but burning to dance, turned up on Limbs’s doorstep, and it was Ashbridge who shaped him into the dance genius of his generation in New Zealand.

Schultz has self-published this book which has resulted from her MLitt and PhD studies in the history programme at the University of Auckland. In the acknowledgements one notes the name of Caroline Daley as her supervisor. Daley’s own Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body 1900 – 1960 (2003) is an important study of historical and anthropological interest. Schultz’s book achieves a similarly satisfying cultural and political context for Limbs’s story which will resonate for those interested in the way we were in the 1970s-1980s.  

In the foreword, journalist Simon Wilson writes of Limbs:

They were fresh, they were funny, they did things we hadn’t seen and hadn’t imagined dancers might do .… Limbs had a startling ability to connect to their audience. Beyond all that, they could dance. In choreography and execution, the creativity and the skills were exhilarating .… It was never easy, it was often glorious, and after 12 frantic years it was over. Art becomes institutionalized or it ends.  

Helen Clark’s cover endorsement reads:  

New Zealand’s dance history has been somewhat overlooked by our historians, until now. The book, the story of Limbs from beginning to end, illuminates a hidden but important chapter in New Zealand’s cultural history and is a welcome addition to the story of our creative, cultural and social past.

Schultz’s preface, “A Brief History of Modern Dance in New Zealand”, is a concise profile of most of the important pioneers and early movers and shakers working here across earlier decades. A few omissions could be noted for the record, though. Margaret Barr, for instance, a dance iconoclast if ever there was one. American-born, but resident teacher and choreographer at the visionary Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England, she had left Dartington somewhat miffed by the arrival there of Kurt Jooss and his dance company, refugees from Hitler’s Anschluss. Barr and her partner lived on a boat in Auckland waterfront. She set up a distinctive practice, teaching her own dance–drama technique for the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and developed a rapport with Paul Beadle at Elam School of Arts, and with writer R A K Mason. The trio collaborated on productions, and Jean Notton was an important dancer there. After some years, Barr left for Australia and became movement tutor at National Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her story is described in Caryll von Sturmer’s Margaret Barr: Epic Individual (1993). And epic she was. After she left Auckland, classes in her technique continued to be taught for some years by Harold G Robinson in  the Vivien Leigh theatre in Wynyard St, on the campus of the University of Auckland. 

Freda Stark, another extraordinary individual, also deserves a mention as a modern dancer (well, she wasn’t a ballet dancer) in 1930-40s Auckland.  Dianne Haworth’s and Diane Miller’s Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life provides a riveting account of life in Auckland at the time. So, too, does Liong Xi, aka Richard Sie, also a remarkable Auckland dance practitioner with Chinese, Indonesian and European experience. Trained in Indonesia, he later worked with Jooss and Sigurd Leeder in Essen, Germany. He taught Laban modern dance, as well as Balinese classical dance, in campus classes also at the University of Auckland in 1960s. He shared a close friendship with Theo Schoon and later with Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Liong’s biography will be a page-turner when it is written. 

But back to Limbs. The prime movers were O’Reilly and Chris Jannides, with dancers of note including Debbie McCulloch, Kilda Northcott, Mark Baldwin, Adrian Batchelor, Bruce Hopkins, Alfred Williams and later the bombshell Wright. Over the years, 40 dancers were members of Limbs, and Schultz achieves admirably deft profiles of the distinctive qualities and personalities of each. 

Another inspired feature is the Spotlight series – a selection of five seminal choreographies captured in close-up detailed movement description. They are Complicated Legs Dance in a Pair of Jeans and Sneakers (Jannides), Shadow of the Warrior (O’Reilly), Knee Dance (Wright), Vigil Switch (John McLoughlin), and Now is the Hour (Wright). That does not make for great literature per se, in fact it means boring, pedestrian, mechanical prose that some might choose to skip. But believe me, dear reader, that is the only way to anchor memories of an ephemeral art (short of rendering the choreography into Laban’s symbolic dance notation, which only two people in the country could read). Schultz is to be applauded for crafting these descriptions of important work. 

There’s a useful appendix of films of Limbs dances, so you can visit Ngā Taonga, the sound and film archive of New Zealand. Now is the Hour is there, in fine condition, a brilliantly filmed record of Wright’s first, but by no means least, full-length choreography. It will stop you breathing to watch him in the lead role of an extraordinary cast (including Schultz, herself a considerable dancer), against a giant backdrop by artist Gretchen Albrecht, dancing as though their lives deep-ended on it, which indeed they did. As Schultz puts it: 

There has not been another New Zealand choreographer who has challenged, provoked and stimulated audiences and dancers as Douglas Wright has …. Now is the Hour is a monumental work of great importance in New Zealand’s dance and performing arts history. 

Well said. 

My only cavil with the book is its cover photo: a mish-mash of dancers oddly clad and lying in a random group-grope on the floor. This is the opposite image of Limbs as we remember them. Any one of the three best photos in the book (interestingly all taken by Peter Molloy) – of the dance company in 1982; of Alfred Williams in a startling leap from Shadow of the Warrior; or of the stunning trio of performers in Knee Dance – would have quadrupled sales. Let’s hope the print-run sells out, so that a few name-spellings and a scattering of typos (none of which affect meaning) can be corrected. And that a publishing house of repute picks up a second printing, so the book can be read and enjoyed as widely as it deserves.

Jennifer Shennan, a Wellington-based free-lance dance writer and teacher, is currently studying for a PhD in the anthropology programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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