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Sarah-Jayne Howard
Photo by Pippa Samaya

“If Douglas is going to do a work, I drop everything. I come to do it because I just can’t not be there with him.”

Sarah-Jayne HowardWhen Douglas Wright’s new dance show The Kiss Inside opens in Auckland this month, one very special dancer will be in the company.

Sarah-Jayne Howard graduated from the New Zealand School of Dance in the mid 1990’s and has danced all over the world. She’s a choreographer in her own right and much sought-after as a dancer. In 2007, her exceptional ability was rewarded with a Laureate Award by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.

Inland in 2002 marked Sarah-Jayne’s debut with the Douglas Wright Dance Company and he now refers to her as his “muse”. It’s no small thing for our most revered choreographer to say – and no small weight for Sarah-Jayne to carry around. She doesn’t get paid any extra for it, either. “No, no, it’s just that to be told that by someone like Douglas is an amazing thing, really. I’m not his only muse. Many dancers have been important to him.”

Sarah-Jayne HowardAmazing, sure. But is it also a burden? “It comes with a huge weight. I always want to stay at that pace and give him what he wants from me. But that’s what drives me.”

The relationship began 25 years ago, when two aspiring young dancers stalked the Douglas Wright Dance Company when they toured to their town. One of those aspiring dancers is now Douglas’s rehearsal director. The other is Sarah-Jayne.

“We just thought they were gods. When I was at dance school, Douglas had a rehearsal for his show Forever and I snuck out of school and went and did class with the dancers.” Uninvited, and without permission from either Douglas or the New Zealand School of Dance. “I just kinda made my way along. I think it was OK to be at the class. I was in trouble at school. But it was worth every minute of it.”

Thirteen years on from their first collaboration, Sarah-Jayne is still sweating it out in a rehearsal room for Douglas Wright. Alongside fellow-veteran Craig Bary, she more than matches the energy of the younger cast members with an intensely muscular, physical intelligence particular to her. No wonder Douglas has also called her his ‘neighbouring hurricane’.

Sarah-Jayne Howard

Sarah-Jayne says their relationship extends beyond the rehearsal room but that on the floor, as they work together is where it is at its most pure. While she acknowledges that she has made strong bonds with other choreographers over the years, it’s the level of care she believes that Douglas feels for his dancers that makes him stand out. “He actually goes for the person…the physical animal in them. But they’ve got to be able to dance first! It helps if you can jump…if you can jump high in the air, you get in the door.”

In 2006 Douglas opened a new work called Black Milk with a solo danced by Sarah-Jayne. Alone on the stage, with red hair that fell to her knees, a pair of red shoes and two pairs of scissors that cut the air around her, it was a performance that one reviewer described as ‘dancing to die for'.

Sarah-Jayne Howard

“That’s been the highlight of my whole career, actually. That opening solo was a gift from Douglas. As a dancer you’re not in it for the money. You’re in it to get those little gems that come along, when someone thinks ‘you’re the right person for this’.”

It’s been four years since Rapt, Douglas’s last full length work, opened at the 2011 Auckland Arts Festival. It was five years before that when Black Milk premiered, and another four years before that to Inland. Expectation and with it, pressure, inevitably grow like Topsy between productions. Due to Douglas’s precarious state of health, we are told that The Kiss Inside is almost certainly his last big show. But to be fair, we are told the same thing every time a new show debuts. Does Sarah-Jayne believe that this really is the last hurrah?

“I do believe this may be the last. There’s a tendency with Douglas that he puts his entire being into the work. And so by the end he does genuinely believe that this is not possible to do again. And then something sparks an idea and off he goes again… But Douglas is not very well. And he gets exhausted halfway through the day. I think this may be his last work. I’ll be pushing for it not to be!”

Sarah-Jayne Howard
All photo by John Savage unless noted. Music – The Hermaphrodite’s Dance by David Long.

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