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Loughlan Prior: A Creative Tour de Force

By Leah Maclean

Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Loughlan Prior is a force of creative nature. A born and bred Aussie, Prior made the move across the ditch and has since carved out his own little place in the New Zealand dance scene developing his own choreographic practice. His works have been presented both nationally and internationally by the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the New Zealand School of Dance along with independent projects for fashion shows and film festivals. He has worked extensively and closely with national treasure Sir Jon Trimmer and has, as of recently, worked farther afield with Patricia Barker’s (RNZB Artistic Director) former company, Grand Rapids Ballet, in Michigan.

Loughlan Prior had something of an unconventional start to his career with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB). Sitting across from me in a Tory Street restaurant, he laughs about his move into the company, following his graduation from the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD), and simultaneously into the reality television world. “I had just joined the company and they were filming The Secret Lives of Dancers,” he explains. “It’s hard enough to start in a new workplace, wanting to impress your boss and then to have cameras everywhere!” That was in 2010 and the Aussie/Kiwi is still an integral part of the RNZB.

Prior was introduced to the world of dance at age five as a way to combat his hyperactivity; his mother had never seen him more focused than when he was doing ballet. Enthralled by the art-form Prior continued through his adolescence, taking part in school productions and attending classes. His high school years were spent in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts, commuting an hour and a half each day just to attend. By the end of his secondary education he came to a fork in the road; to move into an academic setting or pursue a career on the stage? So, as many young Australian dancers before him, Prior made the move across the ditch and joined the NZSD.

“The School of Dance is when I really started to become interested in my own way of moving,” he says. “I had never really experienced contemporary dance as I had in New Zealand; I think there’s a very special breed of dancer here and that’s very much proliferated by the school. For an island so isolated, the kind of people that go through that school and the connections you make is quite remarkable.” Prior remembers his time at the school as rewarding and full of prospect, and ultimately his bridge into the RNZB. He talks about the influence artists like Sarah Foster-Sproull had on his own choreographic approach; collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. Then he describes the experience of seconding to the ballet in his final year as part of the Tutus on Tour programme. “We did Garry Stewart’s Currently Under Investigation which was a really awesome and challenging work. I was really lucky to be cast and have the opportunity to show my moves,” he explains. “It was wonderful! I think when you’re a student it’s hard to realise what it’s actually like in the profession or in a company.”

Speaking with Prior, who is a Tup Lang and Harry Haythorne Award recipient, it’s easy to recognise a constantly working mind with a burning passion for creation. He is the kind of person who does not shy away from a challenge or the idea of tackling five projects at once; in fact he seems to thrive off it. From day one, as an officially contracted RNZB dancer, he was itching to investigate more than just his own movement, and choreography seemed the natural progression. “I’m a maker… I was always the kid that loved art and writing at school, anything – sandcastles and all that stuff. I’m compelled to do it; I can’t imagine not doing it.”

So, becoming an accountant isn’t in the immediate future? “Oh God no! That’s just not the brain I have,” he exclaims.

His artistic repertoire is an impressive one, trawling though his website; it seems almost supernatural that he manages to find time to do all of the things that he loves, especially on top of his full-time RNZB contract.  He chuckles when he says that he would still like to be busier. “I try to create my own luck and happiness, I am happiest when I am creating which is why I try to do it more now!”

He finds his joy in collaborating and working in diverse environments and with a diverse range of performers and artists. From working with the NZSD, his colleagues at the ballet, composers and photographers to prominent fashion labels like Zambesi. Not to mention his love for creating dance film, something that he fell into as another outlet for his choreography. “It really fascinates me, particularly when you're working with camera and dancers. You have to consider the camera as a third dancer; it's a storyteller in its own. You can do so much to enable the audience to have a completely different perspective on what they're seeing and how the choreography looks.”

To date Prior has created films which have been acclaimed nationally and internationally (Memory House - NZIFF 2014, David - Cannes Short Film Corner 2015, Outlier – 2nd place 60SecondsDance 2017). In 2017 his work Genome featured in Wellington’s beloved LUX Light Festival and was selected as part of the 2017 San Francisco Dance Film Festival. With directing heroes like Lars von Trier, Joe Wright, Alfred Hitchcock and Taika Waititi, Prior hopes to one day create a feature film, which he admits seems like a daunting task. “I do think there will always be a sense of movement in my work, my choreography has an interwoven narrative; but to have actual actors and dialogue would be amazing!”

By nature he is a curious person and it is his curiosity and drive that makes him so admirable. His work and work with students is a shining beacon for the future of New Zealand dance. In May 2017 he had the honour and joy of working with NZSD students to present his work Curious Alchemy at the Assemblée Internationale in Toronto – a gathering of dance institutions from all around the world. “I really enjoy working with young people because they’re so enthusiastic, they are thirsty and hungry for the work,” he says. “In a way it’s probably the best thing to do if you’re an emerging choreographer, because it really makes you analyse yourself and the way that you conduct yourself in a room full of people who might not have done your style before.” And what kind of advice does he give students? “Good luck!”

Joking aside, “I’m pretty fun in the studio. I like to keep the environment pretty relaxed,” he explains. “When you work with people it’s not advice, it’s about exposure. The advice I am giving them is through the way I coach, teach and create.”

Prior comes across as very modest about his achievements and his uncanny ability to juggle multiple projects (and practices) at once. He is grateful for the career that he has had up to this point and profusely thanks those who have supported him over the years. He is enthusiastic about the future both immediate and distant, “I just want to continue to make work that I’m invested in and excited about exploring. Every project I do has exceeded the last, so I'm always trying to one up myself!”

He explains that, given the nature of the industry there’s been some ups and downs but overall he can’t complain. “I got super lucky because I got to work with the ballet company in my final year of school and then I got a job from that. With that job I've been able to proliferate a creative practice with a company and school, and now that’s leading elsewhere,” he says. “It's fantastic. The only thing is that it's a slow burning process, but… I guess the best things take time.”

The New Year (and certainly onwards) looks bright and fruitful for the young artist. In early 2018 he will be creating a new ballet in Germany for a cast of 24, the largest group he has ever worked with, his work for Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan will premiere in March, and of course he has film projects in the pipeline.  I can hazard to guess that he will no doubt pick up a new skill and/or creative practice in the next little while. Prior knows how to keep himself busy. 

Read A Practitioner's Perspective: Loughlan Prior

Loughlan Prior: A Creative Tour de Force

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