21 Jul 2020

Celebrating composer Claire Cowan's recent successes

From Upbeat, 12:30 pm on 21 July 2020
Hansel & Gretel

Hansel & Gretel Photo: Stephen A'Court Photography

Auckland composer Claire Cowan has been on a roll with NZSO story time videos, her first album and a queer ballet project.

Claire Cowan

Claire Cowan Photo: Garth Badger

After successfully fundraising the money needed to record her score for the ballet 'Hansel & Gretel' created with the Royal New Zealand Ballet last year, she’s just found out Creative New Zealand will fund her next ballet project based on the life of exotic dancer Freda Stark.  

Over the lockdown period she also wrote the music for the NZSO’s Storytime videos. Four chamber music soundtracks were recorded and filmed with an actor reading the award-winning New Zealand children’s stories.

Claire talked with Eva Radich about the Storytime project and her other initiatives.

Claire says she had an awesome time writing the music for the Storytime videos created when the NZSO players couldn’t tour.

“They thought of this great idea to pair picture books with chamber music and film it, all just in time for the school holidays.”

She had a lot of fun matching the images and sounds suggested in the writing “like a tractor starting up or a star being shot back into the sky or things like this… really graphic stuff that I needed to bring out in the music; all sorts of challenges in there which I really enjoyed.”


The Hansel and Gretel  project will be Claire’s first album, and now she has the funds it will be recorded by the NZSO.

She says there's already an audience for the music with people asking her for it; once it’s recorded she believes she has a much better chance of seeing the ballet performed again, here or overseas.

A video of the ballet filmed during the dress rehearsal was live streamed six times through lockdown, with Cowan even getting queries from overseas.     

“We were lucky we had that recording to bring out during lockdown when people were wanting to connect with live theatre again and couldn’t physically. It was so popular with about 50 thousand people watching it.”  

The Witch and Hansel

The Witch and Hansel Photo: Stephen A'Court Photography


Claire enjoyed writing ‘Hansel and Gretel' with choreographer Loughlan Prior so much that she has successfully applied to CNZ for money to write another ballet. It will once again be created with Loughlan. 

Freda Stark danced at the Wintergarden cabaret in Auckland clad in gold paint.

Freda Stark danced at the Wintergarden cabaret in Auckland clad in gold paint. Photo: The Civic Theatre

“It’s going to be based on my violin concerto ‘Stark’, and so the ballet will be telling the story of some of the key moments of Freda Stark’s life.”  

Stark was an exotic dancer who performed at Auckland's Wintergarden cabaret and nightclub during the second world war, wearing little apart from gold paint. 

Claire says the ballet will have three main characters. “It’s an intriguing love triangle centred on Freda, Eric Mareo the conductor of the Auckland orchestra at the time and Thelma who was Eric’s wife and Freda’s lover.”

It’s a subject Claire is drawn to. “This will as far as I know, this will be the first full length story ballet that involves queer main characters; and such a New Zealand story that really needs to be told.”

Thelma died, allegedly murdered by her husband, killed by a glass of poisoned milk.

“Freda was the main crown witness at his trial. She was outed as a lesbian during the trial and had nude pictures of herself shown but she remained composed and matter of fact during a very difficult time.”  

Her testimony was a vital factor in the conviction of Mareo, who was twice condemned to death and eventually served 12 years in prison.  

Freda Stark, Thelma Mareo and Eric Mareo at a picnic

Freda Stark, Thelma Mareo and Eric Mareo at a picnic Photo: [https://teara.govt.nz/en/speech/30269/freda-stark]

“Years later when Freda decided to dance again (she had a hiatus while she was grieving), she came up with the gold paint dance that we mostly all know her for.”

Claire says Freda picked herself up motivated by her friends and the fact there was an audience for the type of dancing she liked to do.

“I think she lapped up the fame that she was awarded by the American troops. She always performed last, the after-midnight show, she certainly knew how to make a name for herself.”     

Watch Amalia Hall play Stark: The Violin Concerto with Orchestra Wellington and conductor Marc Taddei.