The business of dance in NZ

… but can you turn it into a business? Meet four New Zealand women who have turned their love of dance—and the skills they learned—into their own creative ventures. By Tara Jahn-Werner. Plus a rich and energetic tradition.

Magazine layout

Photographs by Colleen Tunnicliff

… but can you turn it into a business? Meet four New Zealand women who have turned their love of dance—and the skills they learned—into their own creative ventures. By

They said Anna Pavlova was a bitch. The famous ballerina swept through New Zealand in 1926, her elegance and charm on stage wowing thousands of fans throughout the country. But those who knew her best—the members of her own dance company—thought her self-centred, wilful, tyrannical and showing no interest in anything but her next performance.

After a highly successful career in Russia she was invited to join Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris during 1909, but quickly had several disagreements with the famous impresario over her billing. After a pas de deux with the famous Vaslav Nijinsky, Pavlova fainted backstage in a fit of pique because he got more curtain calls than her.

Soon afterwards, the ballerina formed her own company and toured the world incessantly. Her ego remained the stuff of legend. She was often accused of surrounding herself with second-rate performers so that her own star would shine more brightly.

Magazine layout

Angela Finucane of The Ceroc Studio with dancers Glenn Rodgers and Teresa Lauago

And yet, while Pavlova may have repelled many creative types around her, she inspired just as many others. New Zealanders responded en masse to the famous ballerina. Her effect on local dancers and dance teachers here would last several generations. She set up her own troupe with very little money, and was very aware of the power of the media. She was not beneath posing for stocking or cold cream ads to spread her fame and promote general interest in classical dance.

In New Zealand, there’s now an established tradition of independent and self-employed women dancers, teachers and artistic directors. Perhaps there’s something in a dancer’s experience that encourages an entrepreneurial spirit. Shona McCullagh, a former dancer and choreographer for Limbs and the Douglas Wright Dance Company, puts it this way: “Dance teaches you discipline, collaborative skills and determination. It teaches you about the importance of expression and its place in society. Interestingly, it also teaches you how to run a very tight ship, with no room for waste.”

That has a downside, too—in a country oversupplied with small, unambitious companies, dance entrepreneurs, who struggle for funding, can be even more cautious. “Perhaps we don’t think big enough because dance is usually at the lowest rung of the ladder in the arts hierarchy,” says McCullagh. “I plan to help change that!”

Dance teaches you discipline, collaborative skills and determination. It teaches you about the importance of expression and its place in society. It also teaches you how to run a very tight ship, with no room for waste

And she can—as managing director of The Human Garden Agency, which she founded in 1996. Run from a small office in Newmarket, The Human Garden Agency is an actor, physical performance specialist and children’s talent agency for television, film, photographic stills and live event work. Its sister company, Human Garden Productions, creates films, choreography, direction and music (generated by partner/composer John Gibson) and creative concepts that feed into the agency, providing benefit to the performers.

It’s ambitious indeed, but McCullagh could see the potential. “I was shocked with the lack of regard dancers were treated with, and shocked at the lack of confidence many dancers had to speak up and defend themselves,” she says. “There was a gap, and the establishment of the agency filled it.”

And she’s drawn on the experience and enthusiasm of people from outside the industry to build her businesses. “I’ve had four important business partners along the way, always the right people at the right time. They have all helped develop different aspects of the business—start-up partnership, systems, human resources and infrastructure. I wouldn’t be here now without any of them, really,” she says.

Angelique Finucane also found a market niche and made it her own, capitalising on the remarkable growth of Ceroc, a popular social dance form that has taken off throughout the country. During the Second World War, American GIs in France introduced Jive to the local dance scene. The French adapted it and called it “c’est rock”—hence, Ceroc.

Finucane started her first classes in a small studio in Kitchener Street. That was nearly 18 years ago, after she returned from the UK where she had trained with the best Ceroc teachers in London’s Pineapple Studio.

“It was a huge risk for me, but all my friends and family helped, and for a time I even lived in the studio so I didn’t have to pay rent,” she recalls. At first, financial progress was slow. “Fortunately there were little overheads and classes grew gradually. You don’t actually need to start with a hiss and a roar. We’ve grown organically over the years—no more than I could handle. If I’d grown faster it would have been at the cost of my health and family.”

Finucane’s patience paid off. Other dance teachers became interested in Ceroc and she set up a successful franchising business that has seen Ceroc studios established all over New Zealand.

She sees the key to her success as having good management systems in place, down to a detailed 11-page operations manual for her studio managers. On its cover it lists the company values, and tries to build the same sense of support and camaraderie that a successful dance company might have: “We trust and respect each other,” it reads. “We give support to each other and praise more than we criticise.”

Grand words, but it’s apparent that Finucane has a loyal team that adores being involved in classes, now held at The Ceroc Studio in Lorne Street on the top floor of the buildings next to Tony's Restaurant.

Magazine layout

Choreographer Mary Jane O’Reilly with dancer Benny Ord

All of which makes it easier to move on, and as Idealog went to press Finucane made the difficult decision to sell the company. “I felt I had exhausted what it was I could give to the business and I knew that I still had a lot to give—and want the time to explore what that might be,” she says.

The fatigue of constantly giving and coping, especially through the downturn, is a common thread for a number of creative entrepreneurs. Yet, while dollars and cents may not be their main motivation, entrepreneurship allows all sorts of creative innovation.

The work of Catherine Chappell, founder and artistic director of Auckland-based Touch Compass, is a case in point. This extraordinary company incorporates disabled and non-disabled dancers in groundbreaking performances and programmes. In 2007 it celebrated its tenth birthday.

Chappell clearly had a great deal of resolve and willpower when she started the company with the aim of broadening opinion of who can and should be considered a professional dancer. “At first, Touch Compass used the term ‘mixed-ability’ and now we’re referred to as an ‘integrated’ dance company that focuses on embracing diversity. But wouldn’t it be ideal that one day we can just call ourselves a dance company and not have to have labels?” she says.

Chappell is level-headed about the business sensibility needed to survive. “When you take up something new you need the necessary skill set, otherwise it would flounder. It’s challenging to know when to drive and when to hold back. But I’ve always had a passion for dance. It’s a risky business [running a dance company] and sometimes I question why I’m doing it. But the joy of seeing things develop in the studio is really what counts.”

Magazine layout

Shona McCullagh of The Human Garden Agency and Catherine Chappell of Touch Compass

Another well-known figure in the dance world not afraid to take risks is choreographer Mary Jane O’Reilly. With a professional career spanning over 25 years both in New Zealand and internationally, nowadays she is artistic director of the Tempo New Zealand Festival of Dance, held annually in October all over Auckland, and with a special 11-day season at TAPAC (The Auckland Performing Arts Centre) in Western Springs.

She sees the festival as an opportunity to raise the profile of dance, create more opportunities for the audiences to see New Zealand dance, to support both established and emerging choreographers and to foster talent. “My aim is programming shows and combining shared programmes of short dance works to make appealing, entertaining dance experiences,” she says.

But it’s done with an eye on not being in the red, she points out. “We prefer to create collaborations as an umbrella organisation. This means we market and support dancers, but don’t pay them fees. We offer them an opportunity to showcase their work.”

Then she adds, “You need to be flexible in the arts, and very adaptable. As dancers we are trained to be disciplined. If you combine that discipline with being organised, we’re actually quite formidable.”

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).