In Conversation With Chris Jannides
Interviewed by Anton Carter
When did you become interested or aware of dance?
I was in an amateur theatre company when I was a young adult and overheard some women talking about their children doing creative dance. This sparked a memory of having done it at primary school and loving it. So, I went to check it out, except on the night I went they weren’t dancing, they were watching films of professional modern dance companies from overseas. I was instantly converted. This was in 1975, I was 21.
What were some of your first experiences of dance?
I started with recreational classes in creative dance, jazz, folk, classical ballet. Modern dance was scarce and I could only find one teacher to begin with. Eventually two other
styles of modern dance became available. Susan Jordan with Graham technique and shortly after, Mary Jane O’Reilly offered Cunningham training. Auckland had a professional ballet company run by Russell Kerr. He allowed outsiders into company classes. Although I was a total beginner, it was so inspirational being in the midst of this kind of professional dance environment.
Who were your early influences of dance?
A Paul Taylor documentary had the strongest effect on me. I remember Alwin Nikolais’ multimedia work, some stuff about butoh and footage of Martha Graham. That was the extent of my awareness of international modern dance. Locally, Jamie Bull in Wellington started Impulse Dance Theatre, whose work set a new benchmark and standard. Some visiting dance graduates from an American university called Dance Gallery had an impact on me in the areas of technique, improvisation and composition.
What motivated or inspired you to form a company?
Susan Jordan started a modern dance company in Auckland called Movement Theatre for which I was a founding member. From that experience, I created an independent performance featuring a number of small dance items interspersed with humorous nonsense poems. Pop music and dancers speaking were innovations I was testing. It was this first experiment that kick started Limbs and its highly eclectic repertoire.
Did you have any idea about forming and running a company?
Not at the start. Movement Theatre made me aware of key things about how a small dance group operates: programming, performing, choreographing, rehearsing, teaching, etc. But when I left, I didn’t immediately think, ‘Oh, I want to create my own company’. That first independent performance was going to be a one-off. Because of its success, however, we decided to keep going. The way Limbs took off after that was totally unexpected and caught us all by surprise.
How difficult was it in the beginning to form a company and develop your own work?
In retrospect, it seems as though it was easy. We were lucky because the right group of people were in the right place at the right time. After that it was like a roller coaster continually running ahead of itself. We performed in schools, campuses, teacher training colleges, theatres, universities, cafeterias, parks, pubs, fashion shows, prisons, rock festivals, TV, anywhere and everywhere; but always in response to increasing invitations. We quickly amassed a large audience and their enjoyment and support encouraged us to continue experimenting and growing.
What was your focus as the artistic director?
My responsibilities, as one of the artistic directors, were repertoire and programming, developing new work from within the company, choosing dancers, as well as being in control of our overall artistic philosophy and vision.
In the early days how was Limbs received by the public?
Right from the start, audiences were enthusiastic, unbelievably so. When we began, we really didn’t know what we were making. It wasn’t until we saw ourselves through the eyes of audiences and reviewers that we really got to know who we were as artists.
What impact do you think Limbs had on other artists and other art forms at the time?
We frequently interacted with practitioners from other disciplines - pop, classical, experimental musicians; theatre artists; designers; visual artists; film makers. We featured on the cover of Art New Zealand. The impact Limbs had on New Zealand’s wider cultural community was substantial.
You left the company in 1980. Was it hard to leave the company at the time and what were some of the reasons for leaving?
For me, it was devastating. The working dynamic was that we were a collective. Decisions were made democratically. The turning point for me was the company’s first overseas tour to the US. I was becoming concerned that we were losing the grass roots community that had got us to where we were. I proposed that I not go to the States and instead start an apprentice company, one that would accept all the schools and community work that we were no longer doing. The proposal was not taken up. Other things were also complicating my thoughts and impressions of what we were becoming, particularly our increased commercialisation and always having to deliver a ‘Limbs’ product. So, I decided it was best for me to leave. Of course, one of the best things that came out of that for the company, and for New Zealand dance, was that Douglas Wright replaced me.
What were some of the highlights for you being a member of Limbs?
The fun that I often had in performance. Working and performing with such talented personalities. The anarchic freedom on stage, particularly moments of improvisation in the work. Connecting with audiences and surprising them. The games we played with them and with each other. The entry Limbs gave us into so many different sectors of the community, here and in Australia, and across all boundaries and walks of life. The personal growth this enabled us as young people and artists was incredible. Performing to 30,000 people at Nambassa.
How do you think Limbs influenced contemporary dance in New Zealand?
We popularised it, professionalised it, put it on the map and gave it a distinct New Zealand flavour. We legitimised having a career in contemporary dance, launching practitioners who went on to prominence, both here and overseas. We broke barriers of elitism and inaccessibility that surrounded our art form. We became a force for innovation in contemporary performance. Limbs provided strong role models for male dancers, allowing them to successfully enter, influence and lead the profession alongside women. The popularity of our public classes, through the performing arts school that survived it, produced New Zealand’s first bachelor’s degree in contemporary dance. Dance graduates today in our tertiary education system embody our legacy and influence in their training.
How would you describe the current state of dance in New Zealand?
Diverse, vibrant, competent, world class, but also insular, institutionalised, vision-less, formulaic, divided. Standards of choreographic crafting and the technical levels of dancers are very high. But it bothers me that the distance between the privileged few and the under-resourced many is too big.
Looking back now, 40 years on, what are you most proud of?
That Limbs enriched our cultural heritage and made our dance whakapapa so unique. This is worth acknowledging and celebrating.
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