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(Photography: Edith Amituanai)
(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

PartnersOctober 5, 2023

Sarah Foster-Sproull on the art of movement

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)
(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

In this instalment of Art Work, dancer, choreographer and the artistic director Sarah Foster-Sproull talks about the multidisciplinary practice of physicalising, embodying and making.

Sarah Foster-Sproull is a dancer, choreographer, and the artistic director and founder of Foster Group dance company. She is a senior lecturer of dance studies at the University of Auckland, and a choreographer in residence at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Her work includes Despite The Loss of Small Detail (2018), Artemis Rising (2019), Orchids (2020), which have all been critically acclaimed locally and internationally. Foster Group’s work Double Goer (2023) was recently performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and will make its New Zealand debut at the Nelson Arts Festival this month.

What an average work week looks like

Every week is quite different. The thing that tethers my work week to something, that gives it some structure, is the work I do at the university. I’m often negotiating research leave that enables me to engage in my practice. 

It makes for a real matrix of organisation, and that’s one of the key things I’ve learned at this stage of my career is that the administration of the job is quite big. If I want to do all the things I want to do, I have to be quite organised. 

If someone comes to me and says, “Are you available to do a workshop in January?” then I’ll say, “Yes I am … in these weeks!” and hope that we can lock something in that’s agreeable to all parties, so that I can do all the things. I find that I often have to negotiate for time to jump backwards and forwards, to things here and things overseas. 

I feel thankful that there are opportunities to work overseas and make locally, that’s certainly something I’ve been working towards for a long time, but it comes with another layer of administration which is visas, negotiating time off my work at the university and all of the things that come with that.

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

On keeping a work-life balance

The impression I get sometimes is that I feel on tap, easy to contact at any time, and because of my personality type or desire to maintain my working relationships, I respond really quickly, generally. That has me on a knife’s edge a lot. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries around my working week and sometimes I’m really good at protecting those boundaries and sometimes I’m diabolical. One of the conversations I had recently with my producer is that we don’t need to be responding to emails at six in the morning. We don’t need to be responding outside of work hours. 

The requirements of the job shouldn’t really force us to work 24 hours a day, there has to be a better way. I’m quite determined to find that way. I don’t respond to work emails on the weekend, that’s my first stage of the boundary. I want to encourage that with the people I work with as well, set that as a boundary for the company – that we work within the hours that are reasonable, and we’ll agree on what those reasonable hours are, because nothing’s that urgent. Aliens are real, we’re all gonna die, let’s do the work within a reasonable timeframe.

How academic life flowed into a practice

I started postgraduate research in 2013 because I was looking for something more. I was pushing up against that in my professional relationship with work as a performer and asking those questions in rehearsals: “Why are we doing this the way we’re doing it?” 

The next step was, for me, to investigate things in an academic environment, which also brings with it all sorts of things – structures and systems that aren’t necessarily always congruent with the instinctive way that I like to work in the studio. In the beginning, I came in to figure out how I was going to instigate a new voice because by and large I had felt like a silent dancer for several years. I’d had a career as a performer for about 15 years before I transitioned into making things, and I was always making things under the auspices of someone else’s name. 

Those systems are saying one thing about how choreography is made but I know, from the inside, that it works in a different way, and wanting to voice the ways in which choreography is made and facilitated, and is communal. The first part of the research that I did here was in the zone of a dancer’s role in a choreographic process, and revising the choreographic practice as a service that a choreographer delivers to dancers to partake of.

Around 2015, I realised I’d had all of these thoughts about making and had started writing about it so I should probably formalise that by putting it into practice with a company structure, so that what I’ve been talking about lives in reality. 

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

I formed Foster Group and started working long term on projects with people that I really care about. These projects take a long time, and academically, the process that I use to make the work is the same process I use to research at the university, but sometimes it takes different forms. With the lineage that I came through as a dancer, there’s a real desire to tie down and categorise what it is that you do: you’re a dancer, you do this sort of dance, you do these things really well. I’ve become more and more skeptical of such definitions now that I recognise that the way that I want to work.

The performers are makers of the work with me and we collectively own the work. We don’t actually have a contract, we have letters of agreement that we share that are the ownership document of the work. I can’t recreate that work without those people, unless they don’t want to be involved, that’s the only trigger that would bring somebody else in.

That’s how work is being made. It’s not anything new. So many different companies make work in this way. Then I work in other environments as well that operate in different ways. I often feel like a shapeshifter that has to morph and change around the environment and through the environment that I’m working within. I don’t have a problem with that at all, as long as the ethics and beliefs that I have are embraced and upheld in those environments. 

If they’re not, I won’t work there. That’s just the vibe.

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

Making work while having an academic career

Sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it’s really hard. It’s to do with figuring out how one thing bleeds into the next, and how I can use the skills or the interests from one zone to the next. 

I’m going to make something in New York with the New York Choreographic Institute. I’m really excited about that, but I am not currently working with ballet dancers in Auckland, so I’m figuring out what structures I can engage in that environment, so I can shorthand some process, because it’s quite fast! So I’ve made an arrangement with my third year students that we’re going to work on some of the structures I might look at in New York in our choreographic intensive time, as a mechanism of the learning environment as well.

 They get some real world experience of what it might be like to work in a studio to create a choreography in that sort of environment, and then I expose some of the thinking around why I do certain things, and that’s a reciprocal exchange. Through that, they can adopt any of the things they find interesting into their own practices.

The biggest contribution to my ability to negotiate those spaces is my boss Ralph Buck [head of University of Auckland’s Dance Studies programme]. He is the most amazing person I’ve ever worked with. He often says, “What do you want to do? Just go and do it.” and then he figures out how to support from the back, the gaps that I might leave if I go. 

Because of New York, I’m missing out on the last moments of teaching this intensive. He tells me that I’ve gotta go do it, so he makes it work, and he values all of the research that his staff does equally. It doesn’t matter if it’s a choreography for one company, or for a gallery, or a performance work or a piece of writing, he values all these works. 

Sometimes I feel like I get professional development from working at the university, and sometimes I feel like I give professional development in the practice of teaching, and those moments are essential for me because otherwise I’m just going to feel ground down and have nothing left to give.

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

What structures would make it easier

The thing that I would want to change are the mechanisms through which those practitioners apply for funding, and how that’s awhi’d through the system in ways that embrace multiple ways of being. The writing practice predominantly defines the mechanism of assessment. I enjoy writing and it’s a skill I’ve developed over time. It’s entirely possible that up-and-coming makers might not yet have a developed written language for their work. I’d like to see some funding writing support for those that want it.

I hear a lot of things through my peers who I am in contact with that are frustrated of the lack of funding, or about not getting funding, and I just wonder whether it’s because of what was written on that application. It’s not to do with the value of those people and their practice, but it can make you feel that way.

I don’t know how many times I’ve had to write my own marketing copy. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to fill out forms that could have been filled out by other people. I’m very tired of that, but that’s about the systems, that’s about bureaucracy, that’s about capitalism, that’s about all of those things that I am just damned sick of. How do you still achieve the things you want to achieve without having to fill in those fucking forms?

The changing value of the arts

In my family, we value the arts above everything else and in the university, I see that some systems might be geared towards STEM subjects, and that’s where the majority of where Aotearoa’s university students are enrolling, and so to speak about the value of art is of significant importance now.

I want my children to do exactly what they want to do. They’ve grown up painting, and making sculptures, and making plays together in their bedrooms. That’s what we value as a family, but I think the discussion around that is to do with risk. Let us not be scared about what the future holds. Let us commit to the possibility that a career in the arts is possible. You don’t have to tie yourself down to an accounting degree. Why not become a cellist? Why not play guitar in your bedroom forevermore and make your own albums? Why not make comics? Why not? I know there are other parents out there encouraging this, and we need to continue!

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

Some of the students coming into our environment in dance studies with parents very hesitant for their career – “What will they do? What will they do? What is the career for them at the end of this education?”. 

That was never a concern for me, that wasn’t something that my parents brought up. We’re still at the same place of needing to advocate for the value of arts, because it actually is everywhere. We all engage in it. Sometimes we don’t recognise that’s what we’re doing.

What makes it all worth it

Sitting in the audience and having that overwhelming feeling of contributing to authorship, contributing to something new, contributing to something that allows the world to be seen in different ways, and feeling an interconnection between the idea that lives up here, in the ether, and comes through me, in collaboration with the people I work with, to come to fruition as a real thing. A thing that can sometimes open a portal where you can see the unimagined. 

It sounds very woo-woo, but this has happened to me a few times in my career. Two times as a performer, and a few times in watching work, where I feel like all of the things of the universes align and I’m seeing something that I was meant to see, in the way I was meant to see it, and I understand more about the world and my place. 

It’s a deep sense of interconnection with the otherworld, and the ideas, and my ancestry, and the future. That’s, ultimately, having touched on those experiences as a performer, and experiencing them, that is the church that I go to. That’s what I’m always trying to touch – the edge of the void where anything is possible. That’s it.

– As told to Sam Brooks.

(Photography: Edith Amituanai)

Keep going!