Five minutes with NZDC Artistic Director Shona McCullagh


Photo from John McDermott
Photo from John McDermott
New Zealand Dance Company Artistic Director Shona McCullagh speaks to MiNDFOOD about their latest production Kiss The Sky.

Tell me about the ‘Kiss the Sky’, what’s it about and how did it come to life?

Excuse me while I kiss the sky is a beautiful lyric from a Jimi Hendrix song on his Purple Haze album. When this programme was originally created and premiered in Auckland in 2017, we wanted to honour the expanse and brilliance of our Southern Sky at Matariki in a celestial season of works by Asian Pacific artists. On its first national tour, we continue to showcase a constellation of original dance, music and design by artists from Korea, New Zealand and Australia. Like all of our seasons, Kiss the Sky was developed in response to a provocation – in this case, our relationship to the seasons and the natural world with a lens on the very topical fragility of our planet and the changes occurring at rapid pace.


Why are you passionate about dance? How did you get started?

My sister Cathy was nuts about dance. We had all the Princess Tina ballet annuals which when I think about it now, planted something deep about the role of the dancer as a magician of grace, mystery and power. I adored my first ballet teacher, Susan Shuttleworth and then my sister Cathy took over teaching at the ballet school and I was a total pain in the neck and quit.  But when I was about 9 years old, I sat upon my back step and cried because I didn’t have a dance that culturally identified me. And I’ve been searching ever since.


What has been the most memorable production you have danced in?

Douglas Wright’s production of “Now is the Hour” for Limbs Dance Company in 1988. It was wild, avant-garde, confronting and unpredictable. The current Senior Manager of Creative New Zealand was hung upside down in a suit suspended over an upright doppelganger, I did a topless solo where I ripped out someone’s heart in a pagan ritual and Don McGlashan’s fabulous score was urgent and beautiful. In Tauranga we were picketed which we felt quite chuffed about actually. A low moment was Douglas yelling abuse at us performing onstage from the back of the auditorium after he hit a rock bottom with the bottle. So certainly memorable.


Tell me about your work at the NZDC?

There is certainly never a dull day at NZDC. We have a truly brilliant company of dancers that inspire a group of wonderfully dedicated and clever people in the engine room of fundraising, marketing and endless and relentless deadlines to support their full-time employment – a key element of our vision. We’re horizon hunters, connected to community and are touring all over the world. Performing in packed and huge European opera houses spins our wheels just as much as sharing our work with our beloved audiences in Aotearoa. My dream is that one day, our shows will sell out in days, not weeks. Our recent packed houses at Upsurge Festival in Kerikeri, Festival of Colour in Wanaka and Southland Festival suggest that we are well on our way.


International Dance Day is coming up – why do you think we should be celebrating dance?

Dance is a primal human activity. It connects us to others, allows us to feel true joy, and is terribly healthy for our body and our brain.A baby cannot resist moving to music and in truth, nor can adults – we’ve just learned to dislocate the body, mainly through the tyrannical suppression of dance by early Christian cultures. So it’s time we found our boogie, swung our hips and executed a satisfying fist pump. Try it.


Is it ever too old to learn to dance?

Nope, and in fact The New Zealand Dance Company launched its Seniors Programme, Feisty Feet a couple of years ago – and it’s rocking.


What advice do you have for someone like me who has two left feet?

Let the music guide you – connect your body to the sound and your emotional feeling and the co-ordination will come. When we focus only on the “steps” it can get a bit unco. A good dose of daily living room boogie will cure you.


The New Zealand Dance Company – Kiss The Sky

Wellington – Opera House –  May 1

New Plymouth – TSB Theatre – May 4

Nelson – Theatre Royal – May 9

Hamilton – Clarence St Theatre – May 14


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