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Shona McCullagh

Choreographer and film-maker

Shona McCullagh leapt into the spotlight 20 years ago when she was a dancer and choreographer with the late lamented Limbs Dance Company. A founding member of the Douglas Wright Dance Company, she has also worked with Footnote and Sydney's Darc Swan, and picked up a bundle of honours along the way. More recently, she has made short films and devised dances for The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Her new dance, Verge, is part of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Tutus on Tour, soon pulling up to a town near you.

You say Verge has a strong "New Zealandness" about it. How so? John Ritchie's score is extraordinarily energetic in its tempos and time signatures and although it's a classical piece of music, the rapid changes of time signature are very contemporary. New Zealand is not a plain landscape. It can appear to be very beautiful and serene, but when you look at it up close, or you walk in it, or swim in it, it's variegated and I guess that's what the score inspired in me, to explore that idea. I'm really trying to texturise the music.

Did you have to modify the piece to suit the tour? I had an idea for a set that I wasn't able to employ because it has to be minimal and transportable, but I'm equally fond of bare space and the possibility of dancers filling that space and creating the notion of a set with their bodies.

How do you work around the fact that the stages vary in size so much around the country, from theatres to school halls to basketball courts? The company has very cleverly designed a rig that is the same in every venue, which is great. It's kind of a kitset. From my experience as a dancer, having to re-space a work in different-sized venues every time is just painful. And it's much better that the dancers can go and enjoy the op shops down the road, then turn up to class and the space is the same. Op shops are one of the great benefits of touring to the small towns of New Zealand. The only hassle is that the van is never big enough to get the new art deco dressing-table home. Wanganui is brilliant. Timaru, very good. Dunedin, spot on, but now too expensive.

Will you sneak along to watch any of the performances? Yes, I'm sneaking to Wellsford, which is the closest tour stop to where I live, with a group of my friends.

You were a very successful dancer. Do you still dance? I do when I'm choreographing, but in short, staccato bursts, followed by pain and groaning the next day, and constantly monitoring the neck, which will click out of place at any given moment. I would consider it impossible to create a piece without moving some part of my body. A group of "mature" dancers in Wellington are threatening to set foot on the stage again in September and I have been invited to join them, but I thought we could do a piece where we very obviously plaster and bandage the broken bits that don't work any more.

What does "mature" mean in dancing terms these days? Over 20. [Laughs.] No, by 35, a lot of things hurt and although God invented a fantastic anatomy, the knee joint is a particularly vulnerable one. But I think the maturity of performance that an older dancer can give makes up for any millimetres short of the highest jump. I think having a good balance of older dancers in a company creates a really dynamic communication process where younger dancers have someone to look up to. Dancing isn't just about triple pirouettes. Dancing is about interpretation and expression and, for me, that is the most powerful thing it can do.

You have made two award-winning dance films, Hurtle and fly. How do you translate a live artform into something more lasting? All art is about imprinting something on our memory. Live work has a special place in that we are the witness to that gesture, that inhalation, that mistake even. With film, I was interested to see if I could equal the pleasures of watching someone's weight ebb and flow in a live situation. I also really enjoy the notion of imprinting forever my choreography somehow and film was the obvious way to do that. It can be very sad just to continue to make work for live performance that is performed for a short time and then buried somewhere with no gravestone. I enjoy having something I can hold in my hand and post overseas.

You're working on a third dance film. How's progress? The third is in an eternal holding pattern of wire removal. I experimented with quite a bit of harness-assisted choreography, but the wires that are necessary to hold the dancer up have to be rubbed out afterwards and that's a very expensive and time-consuming little process. I have high hopes that it will be finished some time in 2005.

You also work on larger film projects, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. What do you do? Wherever there is a need for movement to be shaped, they ring me up, so The Fellowship of the Ring was a hobbit dance for very short people who lived in Matamata, some of whom I'm still in touch with, which is lovely. And Kong has quite a lot of movement involved in it, but I can't really talk about it other than to say I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Are there dance sequences? There are dance sequences, but what they are shall remain a mystery.

You stopped work on the Creative New Zealand-funded film project you started when you won the first $65,000 Senior Choreographic Fellowship in 2003. I had to take a break. [I said to Creative New Zealand], "Look I've been offered this really small film called King Kong ..."

They're quite good about that? They are. They're very supportive. It makes sense for CNZ to be happy about a choreographer who is employed.