A Tribute to Douglas Wright
By Marianne Schultz
A year ago, one of the world’s great dance artists passed away in Auckland, New Zealand. Douglas Wright died on November 14, 2018 at age 62 (the same age that I am at present) leaving behind a legacy of dance, visual and written work that altered perceptions of humanness and creativity and changed people’s lives. In acknowledgement of this anniversary, I’m jotting down a few of my own personal thoughts on this extraordinary human whom I called a friend for many decades and also to offer reflections on the art he loved and excelled at.
Anyone fortunate enough to have seen Douglas dance can attest to the amazing physical prowess he possessed. Arriving to dance at a relatively late age in his early twenties, albeit with the skills of a trained gymnast, the refinements of control gained through endless ballet and contemporary dance classes, beginning at Limbs Dance Company and continuing in New York, honed his strength while adding idiosyncratic and exquisite nuances. Douglas’s ability to quickly change direction in space, suspend in the air in a jump, or focus his gaze on an imaginary point so demanding of his attention that it became a tangible entity, was truly unlike any other dancer I have known or seen. His unrelenting commitment to perfecting his own dance technique was inspiring to his colleagues. Moreover, he pushed all who worked with and beside him to achieve their own exactitude in physical expression, especially in pursuit of his choreographic vision.
As he withdrew from performing, he developed his skills as a choreographer (in addition to his output as a writer, poet and visual artist), sharpening his artistic voice(s) from the late 1980s until his death. In one person resided the stamina and strength of any great All Black, the intelligence of the great literary heroes of a generation, the imagination of awe-inspiring visual artists and composers.
Douglas doggedly pursued nirvana with his choreography. He hoped to arrive at that magical moment where his movement vocabulary perfectly expressed and embodied his visions while also achieving public and monetary acclaim. At times- most times- he was disappointed with both, but more so with the latter than the former. As an artistic director and choreographer he could be a taskmaster of the highest order. Dancers are used to this. It is, afterall, what we are trained for. Those of us who worked with him while he himself was still performing could relate to this demanding discipline. His dancing was proof that hard work paid off. Once he stopped dancing I can imagine his frustration with not being able to physicalize what he envisioned increased, although his later works were some of the dances of which he was most proud.
In paying tribute to Douglas a year after his death and honouring his work and contributions I am also contemplating the place of dance in society and the impact that an artist such as he had on society and culture (I leave it to others to discuss his work in literature and in the visual arts). As I age, I am coming to the realization that what has been a constant in my life, dance, has been and is still seen by most of the general public as an unusual, perplexing, embarrassing, derogatorily feminine, unintellectual or at worst, frivolous pursuit. Sadly, over time I have come to the depressing realisation that I have internalised these projections and have consciously or unconsciously taken on board these beliefs too.
I am aware that most arts also suffer from negative perceptions and strive to find equal footing in the ranking of important elements of living such as;having a job, adequate food and shelter, personal freedom, health care, freedom to choose where to live, healthy personal relationships, and opportunities for education. Of course these are all vital components of modern, global society. But the arts are also vital. They are outward expressions of all of these fundamental daily exercises, trials and tribulations, successes and disappointments, elations and sufferings of living. However, there seems to be a hierarchy of arts when it comes to acceptance and respect and reflecting on Douglas’s life leads me to these observations.
Drama, both on stage and on film, has long been acknowledged as an important and worthy artistic expression. Though the expression ‘wanting to be an actor’ has been tirelessly met with the standard and cliched reply ‘you are wasting your time, get a real job’, plays, films, and television dramas are still held up as crucial reflections of life in all its myriad of experiences. Playwrights, screenwriters and actors can and do change lives, with profound effects. Similarly visual artists are also met with derision and opinions of a wastrel ‘career’, yet some works of art are sold at astronomical prices and are used as investments for many. Pop music and its songwriters have had unique sway in endearing itself to the psyche of societies across the globe over the last 100 years.
But dance, however essential and fundamental as an expression of humanness has lacked the respect, understanding and popularity of these cousins in creativity. The dance writer Joan Acocella, in a recent New Yorker article, gives a succinct explanation for dance’s aura of distrust. She wrote:
"Over the centuries, from Plato to Shelley, writers have argued that art improves our morals, makes us stronger, deeper, better- or it should. Of no art, I believe, is this moral bonus more routinely claimed than of dance, both so loved and so disrespected for its identification with the body, the campfire."
Douglas was aware of this prejudice and rallied relentlessly against the inability to gain the respectability (and support) his work deserved. Of course he was a pain in the ass at times especially when he victimized his position in relation to other artists and creators, and he was most definitely in the ‘moral bonus’ camp when it came to dance. But all could be forgiven as he contributed such beauty and thought -provoking works, challenging how we viewed society, relationships, politics, religion, and the body.
Choreographers require specific circumstances to work; primarily space, bodies, time. Over the years these requirements were harder to come by for Douglas. It takes funding to pay for all three. The relentless rounds of funding applications, searching for management and administrative support, rehearsal spaces, dancers and available time for making new works eventually wore him down. He was tired of fighting for opportunities that would allow him to make the dances he needed to make. But, sadly, he was not alone in these Sisyphean tasks. Every independant choreographer I have worked with faces these same battles.
Of course I am biased, but I believe the world dances. When we experience dance- either by doing or watching- we tap into something so deeply human that it transcends all verbal thought and communication. We feel, we feel deeply, we feel truthfully.
I miss Douglas and am so sad I will never again see a new work emanating from his singular vision of the world.
I write (and dance) to honour and remember him.