Dance show Orchids reveals the dark side of the female psyche

by Francesca Horsley / 11 October, 2017
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Touring work Orchids by Creative NZ fellow Sarah Foster-Sproull disrupts notions of womanhood.

A piercing baby’s cry at the end of the 2016 dance work Sisters of the Black Crow by Sarah Foster-Sproull sent a wave of shock through the audience – it brought the powerful yet disturbing discourse on female control and possession to an abrupt end.

Never fear, the urgency of the baby’s cry was not garnered from some surreal “other world” or anything more sinister, but a recording of choreographer Foster-Sproull’s infant son Roman in the grip of colic. Also in the edgy creative mix was sleep deprivation and tension as Foster-Sproull and her husband negotiated the pressures of that first year of their son’s life.

A year on, Sisters has been developed into the full-length work Orchids, to be presented as part of the Tempo Dance Festival 2017 programme. Not that it will necessarily be less edgy. Foster-Sproull is interested in disrupting notions of womanhood, telling the stories of the “other” woman, the realm often hidden from view – “the stuff that sits there with a veil over, the dark side to the female psyche”, she says. “An orchid clings to those dark spaces and out of it grows this beautiful flower. So there are connections to the female, to the darkness.” The title also draws on visual artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s representation of the orchid as female genitalia.

“With one of the dancers, Rose Philpott, we create a Medusa-like structure where we pull her hair up and she dances around with the women attached to her.” They then make Medusa’s rage their own.

Orchids. Photo/Jocelen Janon

Orchids. Photo/Jocelen Janon

Foster-Sproull has been working on this content for about six years. “It is really important to expose the female energy as the shadow sense and the light self – so all facets of a woman are within my work. The darkness is quite uncomfortable for some people, but darkness is as essential as lightness. Rage, anger and that tone of emotion are not exclusive; everyone can experience those things. We are animals. Anyone who has given birth – that whole process is completely animalistic and incredible.”

Strong relationships are essential to her creativity and she has collaborated with a close-knit group of female dancers over the three years of making Orchids. Her husband, theatre director Andrew Foster, has provided the set design and dramaturgy and Ivy, their seven-year-old daughter, is in the cast.

Sarah Foster-Sproull: light essence belies fearless determination. Photo/Jocelen Janon

“Ivy brings home from school her trials and tribulations and we talk about stuff she is interested in – her perceptions of male/female gender roles, even from a young age.”

Foster-Sproull is also putting the finishing touches to a work for the Footnote Dance Company programme Contrast, set to go on a national tour in October. Her eighth work for the company, Super Ornate Construct, “looks at societal constructions and notions of responsibility”. Its title is a metaphor for what remains when the ornately constructed world is stripped back to the underlying people and relationships.

“That is the arc of the work. I wanted to experiment with a narrative, so I worked alongside Andrew, who is also the composer and the dramaturg, to tell the story of a ‘man alone’ character.

"Throughout the work, we try to shift the power from that person to one of the female cast members.”

She has handmade a number of cardboard cut-out props, which the dancers use to populate a world around the central character.

“These props float in and out of the frame to add context to what is happening in the scene. By the end of the work, it is just the dancers moving their heads around each other in a scene I call head stacks. It is relatively existential at that point.”

Orchids. Photo/Jocelen Janon

Orchids. Photo/Jocelen Janon

Foster-Sproull is regarded as one of the country’s brightest choreographers and was awarded the 2017 Creative New Zealand Choreographic Fellowship. This will enable her to work uninterruptedly here and overseas rather than continuing her present regime of making work intermittently; “a pocket here, a pocket there. I just think it’s too long.”

She describes her early career as a “gawky, awkward sort of dorky tumbling into dance. I was never the person who was the top pick of anything – was not the best. I was in a really cool bunch of students at the School of Dance. We were all different and I learnt a lot from being around diverse people. When I graduated, I had to figure out what now – do I really want to be a dancer, is there a place for me?”

The next five to six years were spent working in a restaurant, a clothing store and children’s theatre, making one or two works a year with girlfriends. “It was very low key. I then decided to go to dance classes consistently to keep in contact with people who were making things, to keep fit and activate my brain.” All of a sudden she was on her way. Choreographer Raewyn Hill offered her a dance job and they then worked together for eight years.

Orchids. Photo/Jocelen Janon

Orchids. Photo/Jocelen Janon

She learnt her skills by generating movement and ideas while dancing for top New Zealand choreographers. “I learnt to make work by creating for other people. Stepping away and making my own work was about me thinking, ‘If I created for these amazing people, how do I create for myself?’”

She has developed a devising, choreographic process. “I have a specific vision and my collaborators contribute to this and I craft the material to support the presentation. It is more akin to a director role than a didactic choreographer role. The dancers are the most important people in the work – the work is those people.”

Foster-Sproull’s light essence belies a fearless determination. As a dancer, she gave herself unsparingly, and she does the same as a choreographer. Her plans for her fellowship are comprehensive and impressive. “I have a series of works in lots of different destinations. I want to learn some things to add to my toolkit to diversify my practice.”

She also plans to create an evening programme that engages with the dance community – “where there are classes, we do choreographic practice and we put on a little thing at the end of it. I also want to make an oral history project where I interview people around the theme of fellowship and make a document of that. So it’s not an exclusive thing. It is really just to push the making of work to the extreme – there are a lot of things I have to do.”

Orchids, Foster Group and Tempo Dance Festival, Q Theatre, Auckland, October 12 & 13.

Super Ornate Construct, Contrast, Footnote New Zealand Dance, national tour, October 22-November 11.

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