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The muse

She dances like Mona Lisa smiles, says Douglas Wright: calm, inscrutable, seeing nothing, seeing everything. Others call her "a national treasure". Starting with Limbs in the 1970s, Kilda Northcott's career has spanned the growth of contemporary dance in New Zealand. Now, at 51, she is touring a new work that addresses the issues faced by older dancers.

Kilda Northcott's photograph in her bedroom, touched up by an artist, shows a young woman with vivid eyes, generous nut-brown hair and a secure yet retiring composure. At 18, she had already begun to capture attention as a dancer with exceptional talent.

Now, 51 years old, she is much the same. Middle age notwithstanding, she has an enigmatic youthfulness, a fall of brown hair reaching to sitting length, which, freshly washed, she teases apart, strand by strand. With grey-blue eyes framed by wide curving eyebrows, she sits, back straight, in T-shirt and summer dress.

Padding around in her borrowed woolly slippers on a crisp Dunedin spring morning, I am treated to a tour of her pride and joy - her first house. Modest and cosy, it overlooks the inky blue of Otago Harbour.

"I came here because I could buy a house. My sister Rhona [who lives nearby and pops in for a visit to make tea] has been trying to get me down here for years, but I stayed in Wellington because it was central, I had lots of work and my son was still in high school," she says.

"I want to have a good base and not end up in a pensioner's flat as an impoverished dancer; I was heading that way. It's the slightly colder side of Port Chalmers, the view outside my bedroom window - across the valley - is the warmer side. But never mind," she says, laughing, "it is a great little house."

Northcott is one of New Zealand's most accomplished contemporary dancers and muse to celebrated choreo-graphers Douglas Wright and Mary Jane O'Reilly, among others. An equivalent achiever in the sporting world would be a household name, such is her iconic status in the dance world.

Wright said of her in his book Ghost Dance, "She danced in the same way the Mona Lisa smiles - calm, inscrutable, seeing nothing, seeing everything - and when she moved you couldn't take your eyes off her." O'Reilly, when working with her in 2004 said, "Kilda is so fabulous. She has this instinctive receptivity that flows on and gives you ideas just by her presence." This year choreographer and film-maker Daniel Belton, completing a project with Northcott, described her as a "national treasure who is spellbinding to watch".

Does she agree with these accolades? Northcott replies matter-of-factly, "Yes, I think so."

She is in the middle of an acclaimed nationwide tour of Fishnet, a collabora-tion with fellow dancer Lyne Pringle. "While I have worked alongside choreo-graphers making work, devising movement for a very long time, Fishnet is the first piece that I made on my own - along with Lyne - from concept to performance. It has been an important step, really fulfilling." The work explores, albeit humorously, the identity of the senior dancer, motherhood, sexiness and the prohibitions placed on the older female body on-stage.

Her dance life began when, aged three, she went to see a film of Margot Fonteyn performing Ondine and Stravinsky's The Firebird. Her response was immediately kinesthetic. "Apparently, I didn't stop moving and danced in the aisle throughout."

Classes began at six with Ruby Conway, along with her younger sister Arran. "Ruby was an inspiring teacher; she used to choreograph for the local theatrical and musical societies, which we were always in."

The middle of three sisters, Northcott was raised in the Bay of Plenty mill town Kawerau, although her upbringing was far from provincial. Her Scottish parents were unorthodox, their home a vibrant hub of bohemian life. "My parents were free-thinking. Rhona went off to an alternative school at a young age, teachers and locals came round for lunch. We had this huge table laden with food, white bread and jugs of milk. We had everyone - poet Hone Tuwhare, the ballet company, the milkman, the bread man. There was shouting and yelling and political discussion which went on day and night; people who ran the telephone exchange came around; the local bank staff baked cakes for fund-raising at all hours.

"This was the 1960s; there were productions and poetry readings; our doctor, an Austrian Jew, had music and opera evenings; my father wrote plays and founded an alternative news-paper." Her mother, the secretary of the community arts society, sang Scottish folk songs on national radio and in the local productions and took part in early Maori land marches.

"Our house was the first Lockwood house in New Zealand, with bare floors. We never had any furniture. When my father was sent off to Auckland to buy some, he came home with two paintings instead of a couch. A Picasso and this one which I still have," she says leaving the room to return and unwrap a large print of a Henry Moore nude. "We had a Scandinavian-made table and six chairs, one rocking chair and piano in our living-room, and beds to sleep in."

A passive observer to this extra-ordinary pageant of activity, Northcott remembers "just sitting at the table, listening and watching".

Trips to Auckland were a regular event. Northcott's mother used to book into an Auckland hotel for two-week stints to attend film and theatre festivals, taking the girls with her when they looked old enough to pass the R16 restrictions. Northcott also attended workshops at Russell Kerr's NZ Dance Centre. When her parents separated, her mother settled in Auckland, and Northcott attended classes, becoming a fulltime student at the centre after completing her fifth-form year at Auckland Girls Grammar.

She studied RAD ballet, but decided early on that she was never going to be a classical dancer. "I wanted to be a contemporary dancer. A major influence was my teacher, Basil Pattison, who, along with Shona Dunlop MacTavish, had studied with Viennese expressionist dance luminary Madame Boden-wieser."

On graduation at 18, Northcott ventured to Sydney to study with Margaret Chapple, also a Bodenwieser-trained dancer, and then on to New York learning the techniques of two of the major American contemporary dance figures - Merce Cunningham and José Limón - at their studios.

"For two years I did classes all over town, taught and performed with Kalina Cremona and the Reka Dance Company." After breaking up with her boyfriend, out of money and with nowhere to live, she came home in the late 70s, a time when New Zealand contemporary dance was about to crest the wave.

In the late 70s, dancers and choreographers like Northcott were returning from overseas study and experiences, inspired to establish a distinctive New Zealand dance scene. Small companies were formed, enjoying significant but short life-spans; dancers hitchhiked or travelled in vans all over the country to attend workshops and perform. Out of this energy Limbs Dance Company was formed, with Northcott a foundation member.

"We didn't have rehearsal directors or anything like that - we were just doing it, standing back and watching one another. Choreographers had such strong ideas and focus about what they wanted to. We were there every day working for no money; then for $34 a week, and then a little bit more and a little bit more. We did the University Student Council Tour, travelled the country, receiving huge houses, people standing up, clapping, roaring and yelling everywhere we went."

Unlike many of her contemporaries, eager to create works and make their names as choreographers, Northcott just wanted to develop as a dancer. Her body was naturally athletic - she and Rhona had been regional Bay of Plenty running champions, breaking records - and she was able to move quickly, jump really high.

A dedicated dancer, her life revolved around the dance studio and the routine of daily classes, rehearsals and performances. New Zealand was still in an era of social change and Northcott's fluid and expressive body appeared a perfect metaphor for the time. But as others partied, she was bound to the strict discipline of being fresh and full of energy for each day's worth of dance.

"You had to be diligent and go to bed early, you couldn't eat this or drink that, couldn't do that sport. For a dancer, there is a whole dedication to making sure you are absolutely okay, so you can do exactly what is being asked of you; you can't be wrong, you must be right. Because you are being so physical, although you have heaps of energy, you get tired. I had boyfriends, but I didn't go out much. You would have to be there for class next morning."

This devotion to dance, with her since a very young age, left her without a voice, so to speak. "I used to be quite a shy person, so sometimes I retreated rather than going forward - it was safer for me not to go out. I didn't talk a lot or add to conversation. Many dancers don't speak much - that's a generalisation, I know - but I was a lot like that."

Until recently, dancers were not encouraged to speak out, rather to remain quiet and follow the teacher's or choreographer's instructions without argument. In her autobiography, Margot Fonteyn recalls that it wasn't until her thirties that she began to express opinions on subjects outside the studio. It could also be that movement is Northcott's first language, conversation the second. Like Fonteyn, her exceptional kinesthetic ability to communicate through dance is a rare gift.

"My mind and body have been responsive over the years; being in the moment as much as possible and trying to give them [choreographers] what they want. Listening and hearing. As a dancer, I can do lots of different styles and I respond as truly and honestly as possible. The different types of training,experience and varied upbringing I have had contributed towards this.

"To be a dancer you have to almost sacrifice yourself. You are there to be manipulated and manoeuvred, like a vessel. You allow yourself to be there. For some dancers this can be masochistic, going to the nth degree to give the person what they want. There is some element of that which is not healthy and not good. A good choreographer makes you do what they want, but also brings out what is natural inside you."

Northcott left Limbs in the early 80s for Sydney, joining Chris Jannides's multi-media dance-theatre company Darc Swan and studying yoga. She returned in 1989 to work with Douglas Wright again, this time with his newly formed company in Wellington. More recently she has widened her repertoire to film and the theatre.

Something Northcott is concerned about is the place the dancer occupies within the dance hierarchy. "They are down here," she says, indicating the lower leg of her chair, "and it's a lack of recognition for dancers. The choreo-grapher, the producers, the musicians and others receive the kudos and the money. The choreographers couldn't do their work without the dancers."

Despite being celebrated, she has yet to be invited to the major dance schools for lectures or teaching positions, or receive Creative New Zealand funding for any of her proposals.

Some of this autobiographical detail is included in Fishnet. Stepping out, she places herself in the verbal as well as physical spotlight, teases with notions of visibility/invisibility. Relishing a "coming of age", she seeks a more fitting definition of herself and in a soliloquy, addresses her critics, past lovers and admirers.

"There is an element of ritual in what we as dancers do; we are there to tell stories in the same way as ancient communities sang, danced and explored ritual together. Our role is complex - it's like a teaching and a showing, revealing and mirroring. We are there to pass on a truth or illumination.

"Although I have to be careful what I'm doing, as my body has been hammered, it is important for Lyne and me to keep going. I would like to do a solo work that has no pressure anywhere in my body but gives the impression that I am, metaphorically or physically, still moving."

The national tour of FISHNET concludes at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre, November 3-5.