Interview: Deirdre Tarrant on retiring from Footnote Dance Company

by Francesca Horsley / 06 October, 2012
After 27 years, Deirdre Tarrant is retiring from her “very pleasurable monster”, Footnote Dance Company.
Deirdre Tarrant


The overlooked posters on the Footnote Dance Company office wall in upper Cuba St, Wellington, suddenly have significance. They remind retiring artistic director Deirdre Tarrant of her constancy. They reveal the depth of her gift to New Zealand dance. As she checks the date on one poster during our interview, there among the 1987 Footnote crew is dancer Lisa Densen. It catches Tarrant by surprise. She is in the midst of preparations for the company’s trip to Europe in October, which includes working with Densen, now resident in Berlin. They will spend time with Densen preparing a work to be presented in Tarrant’s final programme next March.

Tarrant’s life has constant momentum. She squeezes every moment to realise her dreams for dance. After performing Footnote Forte 2012 and taking part in a special celebration honouring her legacy at Tempo Dance Festival in Auckland, she leaves the next day for Frankfurt. The six-strong company will be performing in the city’s Mousonturm House of Artists the following Saturday to coincide with New Zealand’s guest of honour programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair. “So it is going to be a seriously ‘keep your health together, drink orange juice’ type week,” she says in her grainy voice. “I cannot fit my life into November at the moment,” she adds, listing a whirlwind of special projects and commitments on her return. “There is always so much on the ball, with choreographers completing work or coming in to work on their projects.”

It is this energy and focus that made Tarrant’s grassroots dance group New Zealand’s most enduring and influential contemporary dance company. The early days in the 1980s when “we might be invited to a barbecue after a show, given some money which we would divvy up” or “we’d choreograph our own pieces and then risk a tour – arrive in places, ring up the schools and stay with friends” are well gone. Footnote, now 27 years old, sets out to commission some of New Zealand’s best choreographers and musicians and employs a number of talented dancers on near-yearly contracts. The company has built a solid infrastructure and in the past 12 years has developed and nurtured a stable of choreographers – “what we call the Footy whanau”. Michael Parmenter, Raewyn Hill, Malia Johnston (the company’s newly appointed artistic director), Sarah Foster-Sproull, Claire O’Neill, Lyne Pringle and many more are in the impressive lineup of choreographers whose careers owe a debt to Tarrant. “I like to think we have really good respect. I can’t think of anyone who is active in the industry who hasn’t had something to do with Footnote.”

Tarrant believes every choreographer has a vision, a voice and a right to be heard. “We in New Zealand tend to be very tough on our creative people. You make one work that doesn’t succeed and never get the chance to do anything else – choreographing is a craft; you don’t always get it right the first time. “I hate to see that happen to young people who are burning with desire – I was exactly the same and you just have to make your own way.” What is very dear to Tarrant’s heart is supporting artists who are returning home. She invites them to her studio, where they sit for hours on her famous blue couch finding ways for them to stay in New Zealand. “It’s hard when you don’t have anyone to help.”

Tarrant’s career began with ballet classes with renowned Wellington teacher Jeane Horne, and included seasons with the then New Zealand Ballet Company. At the bidding of her father, she completed an arts degree at Victoria University of Wellington, spending the bulk of her time working on Extravs with Roger Hall and Stephen Whitehouse – also teaching dance and joining the Ballet Company for tours. London’s Royal Ballet School followed, then the newly established London Contemporary Dance School, which led to an international career in contemporary dance and ballet. She didn’t set out to create a full-time company. “You just do it in small bits. It was always about believing passionately in whatever the next thing was and not letting go; always a new exciting and absolutely essential project. Gradually you find yourself with this monster – but it’s a very pleasurable monster.

“I love the fact that dance is always challenging, always unexpected. You never know where the X factor is coming from. I am passionate about what it has to say, its voice, how dance can challenge emotions. You go into the studio every day – some days are exhilarating, others are really hard and you have to push through something that is not working.” Although she loves the artistry, Tarrant won’t miss the daily struggle to generate income to guarantee the dancers’ wages and the company’s viability. Nevertheless, she fiercely believes dancers need full-time employment and her company aims to do this. “Just picking up dancers and dropping them off when you want to save money is not on.”

She keeps in touch with all her dancers and choreographers, watches over their careers and invites them back to choreograph for the company. Densen’s commission has been five years in the planning. The company’s touring programme, often launched on a shoestring, has included Shanghai, Berlin, Brussels, Antwerp and London. Aside from two choreographic seasons a year that tour nationally, Footnote runs a Dance-in-Education programme. Beginning in 1985 as an opportunity for children to experience live performance, the programme this year ran workshops in about 50 schools. Saying goodbye has been poignant: “I love the time in schools. You challenge, you turn light bulbs on – suddenly they discover they can reach further, jump longer and spin harder.”

Tarrant plans to continue running her Tarrant Dance Studios and is looking forward to full involvement in the end-of-year shows. Ultimately, however, she is a family woman. Her three children (including Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie) are the reason she stayed here. Now, she says “I want to spend time with my grandchildren and go to the zoo. I am not shutting the door and cutting myself off. I just don’t want to be doing funding applications any more.”

FOOTNOTE FORTE 2012 and HONOURING DEIRDRE TARRANT, Q Theatre, Auckland, October 9, as part of Tempo Dance Festival, October 9-21.

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