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Interview: Corey Baker, the biggest NZ dance star you’ve never heard of

While Parris Goebel is designing moves for Bieber and Minaj in the US, another Kiwi choreographer is making waves in the UK. Corey Baker talks to Anna Frances Pearson about his meteoric rise.

Corey Baker’s career hardly rates a mention in New Zealand media; it has happened entirely overseas. But the 25-year-old choreographer is now reconnecting with his roots, with collaborations with Witi Ihimaera and Fat Freddys Drop on the cards.

Corey left high school at 14 to enter the world of ballet – of gruelling training schedules, international travel and extra bones in his feet.

He has since retired from performing to focus on his choreography work. His Birmingham-based company, Corey Baker Dance, turned over a quarter of a million pounds last year and this month received a Creative New Zealand grant for a planned collaboration with Wellington band Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Corey and I went to the same rural primary school in Canterbury; he had a penchant for wearing capes and performing magic tricks. We caught up at the Volstead Trading Company in Christchurch in January – the first time we’d seen each other since childhood.

Corey Baker

Choreographer Corey Baker. Photo: Dani Bower

Corey: This is my first coffee of the day. I woke up late then faffed about. I got my new 10-year passport.

Anna: Is that why you came home?

No, I decided to renew my passport while I was here because I realised I couldn’t leave the country otherwise – $360 later, though. Man, that shit’s expensive.

How have you worked out your visa? Have you got family who are British?

No, I got married.

Whoa, congrats.

Thanks. I’ve also been separated. Filing for divorce soon.

Oh shit.

“Congrats… oh.” I love doing that. Don’t worry. People feel way more awkward about it than I do. Soon I’ll have a British passport, so I can flick between them both.

When did you get married?

About three years ago.

To a Brit?

Yes. He’s a dancer, half Irish and half Yorkshire. Very laddie type of guy. We are just polar opposite, which was great at the start…

When did you leave New Zealand?

I left when I was 15. I was doing ballet full time at that point. I actually left high school illegally when I was 14 to go do ballet at the International Ballet Academy here in Christchurch. My English teacher ran a ballet class in the centre of town. She saw me tap dancing in the corridors because I wanted to be a musical theatre actor and was like, “Ballet will help with that.” It turns out ballet took over. I went [to IBA] for a year. Carl Myers was my lead teacher. Interestingly, the first male figure in my life. He was really good to me, especially at that pivotal age – 14 to 15.

What happened after that?

I was like, “I’m going to go to Australia and do ballet there.” I was 15 and had no money. Nor did Mum. She was like, “Corey, I don’t want you to get your hopes up. I don’t think it’s going to happen.” If anyone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll do it. It’s some sort of trigger for me. I had $250 in my bank account from working at Starbucks and [the course] was $13,000 a year. I wrote to them saying, “I can’t afford the $13,000, I was wondering if there were any scholarships?” They’re like, “You [don’t fit] the criteria.” I wrote another letter, begging them. I was like, “This is what I’m supposed to do. I know it. Can you please allow me to come and I’ll be your best student? I promise.” They said okay [and] gave me a full scholarship.

That must have been a pretty convincing letter.

Yes, I think it was. I remember at the airport, the day I had to fly, my Mum was there bawling her eyes out. I’d never flown by myself before at that point. All my friends were there. It was really hard to see my Mum look so vulnerable and upset. My Mum is my biggest supporter; she understands me. I was like, “I want to dominate the world.” Very ignorant. Just got on a plane, hoped for the best. It was 2005 or 2006. I was nervous about starting ballet school because I knew I wasn’t as good as everybody else.

Were you the underdog?

Yes, real underdog. I had to work in a pizza shop after ballet from 6.30pm until about 11pm every night just to pay my way through school. This particular school takes 10 or 12 students from each year on a European tour [and] they asked me if I wanted to do it. I was like, “Yes. Great.” They travel around auditioning for either a final year at a dance school or for dance companies. But actually, I couldn’t afford it. It was nine-and-a-half grand.

You don’t even know how many chocolate bars I sold, but the day of the deadline I was still $5000 short. I remember I was doing rond de jambe’s on the bar in the ballet studio and the director walked in. She’s like, “Have you raised the money Corey?” I was like, “No.” I started crying because my future looked like going back to New Zealand, working at Starbucks. Then she was like, “I’ve just had a phone call from a Catholic priest who runs his own arts charity.” [Apparently] he spoke to Rudolf Nureyev one day – a famous ballet dancer – and said, “How’s it being a dancer?” Rudolf Nureyev said, “It is so incredibly hard being a male dancer. Everyone thinks it comes easy. There’s not much support.” [The priest] was like, “One day I’m going to help male ballet dancers.” It was that day that he decided to ring up this dance school and be like, “Do you have any male ballet dancers that need financial support?” The director was like, “I know one.”

No way.

He ended up paying that $5,000. It was one of those miracle moments. You’re like, “What?”

How did the European tour go?

I was offered a place at a school in Germany, in Dresden, and then I went to Switzerland and was offered an apprenticeship in Basel. At the time I didn’t realise it, but I was going to be earning the most I’d probably ever earned in my life. They said, “We would like you to start now.” I was like, “Okay.” So I signed my first contract at 16 or 17.

The next morning everyone packed their bags, got in the tour van and drove off. I stayed there with my suitcase, waved goodbye. I remember it so clearly. I was like, “What am I doing?” I had to ring my Mum and I didn’t realize I was in Switzerland, I thought I was in Sweden. It was so embarrassing. “Hi Mum, I’m in Sweden.” She was like, “Oh. I thought you were supposed to be in London by now.” I was like, “Yeah, no, I’m in Sweden. I’m staying here. I’m living here. I’ve got a contract that starts in two weeks.” She’s like, “What?” I was like, “Yeah.” Then I lived in Switzerland for two years.

Were you part of a company?

Yes. I was under the school’s direction, but I was also in the company. I got to do class with the company every morning. I would shadow their choreography. I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was. I really didn’t. I always knew I wanted to be a choreographer. I knew that I wanted to be a creator and come up with ideas. That’s me. I don’t do very well with people telling me what to do. Ballet was never going to last too long.

Such a huge commitment really, isn’t it? For your body.

Massive. I had an operation by the time I was 19. I had a bone removed from my ankle. I was living off codeine for six months. I’d wake up in the morning and the first thing I’d have to do is lay in a hot bath for half an hour before I could actually move. I had to get a taxi [home] some nights because I couldn’t walk. Ballet’s not healthy. It turns your body into something it’s not supposed to be.

Corey Baker. Photo: Dani Bower

Corey Baker. Photo: Dani Bower

It’s interesting that you managed to do that knowing deep down it wasn’t going to be your thing.

I guess I’m naturally optimistic. I see everything as a ladder up – not necessarily knowing what’s at the top. Ballet was like that. It was probably quite big for my personality as well because I needed some reining in. I needed a bit of conditioning – my body and mental ability to focus and concentrate.

True. Something perhaps other people get through high school.

Absolutely. I was too free-for-all [and] ballet school was my parent. Part of the negotiation for my contract [in Switzerland] was that I wanted to choreograph a proper piece for the main stage – 2500 people. They didn’t teach me how to do the lighting and the pre-rigging; I was on the internet trying to figure out how all that shit worked. I was like, “I want big blue lights coming down from that way,” and they were all like, “What is this kid on about?” But I did really well, I think. I got a standing ovation, which is amazing.

What was it about? The piece.

I wanted to break out from ballet. Even in the best situation probably a dancer could ask for I still wasn’t happy. I was so sick of the regimented boringness of it so I had all the females dress up as men in suits and stuff, and all their choreography was crazy and they were choking themselves with their ties. It was just a bit nuts. I think why it was liked is because the audience felt like that about dance as well and they were a bit sick of it being all poncy. I wasn’t into that.

What did your teachers think?

One lady was like, “This is garbage isn’t it? This is garbage.” The director of the whole theatre came up and congratulated me. I remember that.

It was really getting into the more contemporary side of things?

Yeah contemporary ballet, really. It was that piece that set in stone my desire to move away from ballet and be more of a choreographer, but I also realised that there was nothing in Switzerland for me if I wanted to do that so I decided to move to the UK, not knowing anything about the UK. I got on a plane to London and found a flat. I think I saved a lot of money in Switzerland but sure enough within like five or six months I’d spent it all because the UK’s really expensive.

It was really hard. I had no friends for like six months. I was really depressed; I was too loud, too blunt, too easy-going for the UK. I really had to change my approach to communication. You have to conform to what they’re used to. Which is politeness, political correctness and rules for everything. I did some auditions. I worked in a call centre. I got paid to dress up as a panda giving out free samples of pita bread.

Oh no.

Yeah. I got my first [dance] job at BalletBoyz, which is a very big company in the UK [set up by] two ex-principals from the Royal Ballet, [who] quit the Royal Ballet famously by exposing some really bad things about the [company] on camera. The two rebels of the Royal Ballet. After the BalletBoyz job, I danced with loads of companies around the UK – some great, some not so. I was in the driver’s seat. I moved from contemporary ballet to contemporary [dance] really quickly.

Was it at hard on your body, this new career?

It’s not as detrimental for your body but it’s way more physically demanding. It’s more robust, really physical, like throwing yourself around – flips, that sort of stuff.

Did you do that for a few years?

Yeah and I would trade teaching kids at a school how to dance to have their school hall for a week.

To start doing your own stuff?

Yeah. All the choreographers I worked for knew I wanted to be a choreographer because I was very vocal about that so they started allowing me to teach, come to a class, or rehearse their show maybe. Then I started taking jobs as a rehearsal director and as an assistant choreographer with choreographers I had already built relationships with. I did that and I kept dancing and dancing. It was a struggle balancing my income with trying to invest it into being a choreographer. That was four years ago. Now I’m a full time choreographer and don’t dance anymore. I retired as a dancer in December 2014.

Do you have a space now – like an office, studio and all that?

Yeah. I guess my choreographic career really started from 2012 when I got the co-choreographer role for the Cultural Olympiad London 2012, [which is] the culture element for the Olympics. We created a family show called Spill. Instead of using a stage we used a playground and the dancers would flip off the swings and run down the slides. It was really fun and exciting. We didn’t realise how successful it was going to be. We ended up touring 246 different playgrounds. We went to New York, Canada, Sydney. Literally all over the UK and Ireland.

That put me on the map as a choreographer as opposed to a dancer. Then from that I got the job as resident international choreographer for the International Dance Festival Birmingham, which is the biggest dance festival in Europe. That was my first taste of Birmingham. It was a six-month job to create three different shows. Then I sort of stayed there. The theatre housing the festival made me resident artist. That came with an office, studio space, theatre space. I can’t even tell you how lucky that is. You don’t get that.

And that’s how you’ve come to be organizing the Birmingham Weekender?

Yeah it’s a three-day festival that brings in different arts – theatre, music, live performance and puts it in the city for everyone to enjoy for free. It’s really cool.

One of your projects last year was Kapa Haka Tale as part of the Rugby World Cup in London. Was that the first time you’d done something that actually referenced where you come from?

Yeah. It was after I started eating loads of Yorkshire pudding and was becoming suspiciously too polite. I found myself becoming British and was like, “God, I really need some New Zealand friends.” I went down to the London High Commission where there’s a Māori [group] that meet called Ngāti Rānana and I fell in love with my culture again. They sing, dance and have a bit of community. I came out of it with a sense of responsibility because I was like, “Wow, I’m in this unique position where I can create shows and experiences to mass amounts of people. Why am I not creating something amazing about New Zealand?” All of a sudden everything [else] I was doing felt superficial.

Kapa Haka Tale, choreographed by Corey Baker. Photo: Tim Cross

Kapa Haka Tale, choreographed by Corey Baker. Photo: Tim Cross

Had you had much to do with Māori culture in New Zealand?

You get taught stuff at school, you’re amongst Māori.

Are you Māori?

This is one of those questions that’s really difficult because I have [a small amount of] Māori blood in me but I think the success of the show came because I was brought up Pākeha. I know what a UK audience is looking at when they encounter New Zealand [culture] for the first time.

Did you bring New Zealanders over for it?

Yeah, we brought two amazing performers over. Tupoutama Paki, who is a really well known Māori TV presenter and performer, and his wife Raiha Johns-Paki. We worked together to create this show and it went on a sell-out tour last year. It was kapa haka and contemporary and theatre all weaved into one. It kicked off at the Rugby World Cup and then toured throughout the World Cup. It’s going on an international tour in 2019. We’re redeveloping it for bigger theatres.

Are most of the performers British?

There are eight people in the permanent cast. The two leads are from New Zealand and the rest are British. We went on a Māori retreat [in Rotorua] and taught them all about the culture, had haka training.

That’s interesting to have British people learning and performing the haka.

It’s really rare and I think it was quite provocative, but really amazing for everyone. We had cultural policies left, right and centre. It never came from a bad place. It came from wanting to share the culture.

Were you proud of the show?

I was really proud of it. It was really, really hard work, hence why I’m here trying to recover from it all. I’m also developing new ideas for the future. I want to keep working with New Zealand artists. I met up with Fat Freddy’s Drop last week, with the potential of bringing one of their albums to life in a production which I’m really excited about.

They’re very well known internationally.

Really well. I went to see them at Alexandra Palace and it was a sold-out, 10,000 people gig. I was like, “How can I enhance this experience?” I’m also meeting up with Witi Ihimaera while I’m here. We’ve been in conversation for quite a while, to see if I can bring one of his books to life – or something new.

You’re obviously very high energy. Do you ever get tired?

The Rugby World Cup was hard. I should have brought my laptop to show you my calendar, it was insane.

Are you always working?

Yeah. My friends and family – the close ones – find that really difficult because I never switch off. I guess you’re riding on momentum, aren’t you, to a certain point? The plan is to stay in the UK for the next 10 years.

You’d like to be our unofficial ambassador?

Yeah. Our cultural ambassador. I’d love that.

I guess you have this profile over there that you don’t necessarily have here.

Exactly. That’s the challenging thing as well. It’s really hard coming back [to New Zealand] and trying to make meetings and stuff. In the UK I have a profile as choreographer and here I’m absolutely nobody. They’re like, “Who is this guy?” When I made my first piece of dance theatre in England it got great press and all that and I got quoted as a British artist. It was really weird because I was like, “Oh. I was born in New Zealand. I’m a New Zealander.” But I guess my career has happened in the UK. All my work’s in the UK. My company’s in the UK. All the shows premiered in the UK. I’m recognised as someone who’s from the UK.

I actually ended up meeting Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and she had the same situation. A lot of people referred to her, when she first started making it, as British. Then she famously sung “Pokarekare Ana” and started to represent and be vocal about – excuse the pun – her New Zealand side. It empowered me a bit to be like, “Yeah. I am a New Zealander. You just did that wrong in an interview or in an article, mister.” Loud and proud, I’m from New Zealand.

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