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A tribute to the dexterous, powerful and vulnerable Douglas Wright

Douglas Wright directs dancer Sarah-Jayne Howard during the Black Milk rehearsal at the Sydney Opera House July 19, 2006. Photo / Getty Images

To choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull, Douglas Wright was both mentor and friend. 

I fell in love with movement through seeing Douglas Wright dance and witnessing the power of his choreography live.

As an aspiring dancer in training in the late 1990’s I ‘fangirled’ my way through watching every single performance of Buried Venus and the Douglas Wright Retrospective, in both Wellington and Auckland. During his live performances of Elegy, I would sit on the edge of my seat, with tears in my eyes, like a big ole’ dance loving cliché.

Experiencing his work in an age before the internet and social media made everything so accessible. It meant that I had to lean in close and savour every moment while it lasted. Later in my career, after hoping with all my heart, he offered me a job as a dancer in rapt, and I began a new journey with his work from the inside. I was hoping to pull back the veil of his mystery and magic, but in reality, I spent most of my time trying to please him, in the way that you might do with your idols. It was a bit tragic.
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I recall the furious work ethic in the studio, his unrelenting drive for perfection, and the practice, practice, practice. Douglas was incredibly specific about the detail within a movement, and each gesture or inflection was deftly choreographed. His conversational and gestural movement material was mixed with explosive jumping. Cutting through space like a banshee was a trademark. As dancers, we were always 100% with him, ready to develop, refine, and push his ideas as far as possible. I was in awe of his choreographic crafting, and attention to detail.

With Megan Adams assisting him, Douglas was capable of achieving an incredible amount in a short time frame. In rapt, our job as dancers was to embody his directional specificity with wild abandon, and it was a tough task.

At this time, he was not dancing much due to his health, but Douglas would still get up to demonstrate the occasional movement or sequence. His material was often the hardest to achieve, and sometimes he was astounded that we couldn’t do it as he did. This led to a fury of practice, refinement, discussion, and more practice.

Sarah Foster-Sproull. Photo / supplied

I witnessed some of my dearest friends flourish under Douglas’ direction. He had an uncanny ability to unlock something hidden within certain dancers, a regal fury.

Pretty soon after this experience, I retired from performing, as in many ways I felt I had done all I wanted to do as a dancer. The experience working with Douglas had inspired me to work more seriously on my own choreography.

I had a short career with Douglas, but a long friendship. When I visited him, he would get me to sit in the ‘good’ chair while he sat on the couch. We would drink cups of tea and eat small cakes. I never imagined that he would eat small cakes, but he did, so there you go.

I got to ask him all the choreographic questions I had, and I was uplifted at his genuine interest in my own choreographic practice. His support of my work opened doors for me, that would not otherwise have been opened. These times, his opinions, and our discussions are very precious to me.

My feelings about Douglas’ choreography are mirrored throughout the national and international dance community. I am one of many who have been deeply moved by his creative voice. Since he passed on November 14th social media has exploded with tributes of love and gratitude from his friends and admirers. The stories are glorious, and a beautiful reminder of Douglas as a dexterous human, both powerful and vulnerable, witty and unrelenting.

There is a legacy of dancers and choreographers left in the wake of Douglas’ passing that are reflecting deeply on what dance in Aotearoa means now. I remember reading that Douglas said wanted to make a tornado, something energetic and wild.

That is what he did, and how I will remember him.

Vale Douglas Wright, with love.


Sarah Foster-Sproull is a former dancer turned choreographer who was the recipient of the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Choreographic Fellowship in 2017.