Not much has been written about Limbs on an academic or scholarly level. However, two excellent articles written by Dr Marianne Schultz (herself an ex-Limbs dancer), one published in 2004 in the Ausdanz online dance archive and the other in 2011 in the NZ Journal of History, give extremely well-researched accounts of the group’s formation and influences.
The Ausdanz article can be accessed online here:
Or a pdf version can be opened and downloaded here:
While the Ausdanz article focusses primarily on Limbs, the one in the NZ Journal of History gives an in-depth overview of modern dance in NZ spanning the 1930s to the 1980s. This article contextualises the way earlier pioneers informed the birth of Limbs, and the subsequent influence of the group on the maturation and ongoing development of dance in NZ culture.
A pdf of Marianne’s article can be downloaded here:
Here are some excerpts from this article:
‘IN 1978, one year into its existence, Limbs Dance Company performed at Victoria University in Wellington. In her review in the student magazine Salient, the veteran dance innovator Rona Bailey expressed the hope that Limbs’ accessibility and relevance meant concert dance had at last ‘arrived’ in New Zealand culture: ‘We were seeing a new and fresh approach to Modern Dance. This was dance for all people, not just an elite. Modern Dance in New Zealand has not yet set down real roots. It has not reflected the real life, work and heritage in this country. Limbs have all the ingredients for doing just that.’ ‘ (p. 225)
‘With air travel becoming easier and the ‘OE’ more common, new developments in modern dance accelerated as dancers left for the United Kingdom and the USA to learn and returned home to teach. Film and television also introduced dancers in New Zealand to performances by choreographer-led companies such as those of Paul Taylor and Alwin Nikolais. It was through this increased presence of modern dance that Limbs Dance Company emerged in 1977. Limbs’ founding members — Christopher Jannides, Mary Jane O’Reilly, Mark Baldwin, Kilda Northcott and Debbie McCulloch [ my note: Marianne has missed out another of the original members here – Julie Dunningham ] — came together at a gathering of dancers at Porangahau on the Rongomaraeroa Marae on the East Coast of the North Island in January 1977. Each had a different background in dance, but all shared the desire to create dances that reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s.’
[ here is a photo from the Porongahau workshop – left to right back row – Chris Jannides, Debbie Groves (Impulse Dance Company), Piri Sciascia, Alison forgot surname, Mark Baldwin, Jan Bolwell, Paul Jenden (Impulse Dance Company), Jamie Bull (Director – Impulse Dance Company), Liz Davey (Impulse Dance Company), Gaylene Sciascia – middle row – Sue Renner, Sue Cheeseman, Millie Clayton, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, unknown, Robyn forgot surname, Raewyn Schwabl (now Thorburn) – front row – unknown, Kilda Northcott ]
‘Jannides grew up in Wellington in a Greek family. By 1976, at age 21, he was living in Auckland and working with the University of Auckland-based Movement Theatre. He left Movement Theatre at the end of 1976, explaining that the physical and psychological heaviness of the Graham-based technique shaping Movement Theatre’s dances and themes made him feel uneasy. Moreover, Jannides was already developing ideas for his own choreography that clashed with what Jordan considered appropriate for modern dance. Jannides had ‘choreographed a duet to pop music’. After the director objected that popular music was not suitable for modern dance, Jannides’s desire to choreograph and experiment with composition intensified. Fortunately, following the gathering at Porangahau, he was invited to present a free lunchtime concert as part of orientation festivities at the University of Auckland in March 1977. This concert at the Maidment Theatre (‘A Modern Dance Concert devised by Christopher Jannides’) featured the work Hey Negrita, danced to the Rolling Stones song of the same name. Jannides had succeeded in setting dances to popular music and Limbs’ direction was laid down.
Baldwin, born in Fiji in 1954, grew up in Auckland and was exposed to dance at a young age: ‘my earliest memories are of watching Polynesian dancing and Giselle and strangely enough they got somehow mixed up in my brain. Ever since I can remember I always wanted to be a dancer.’ Though encouraged to pursue visual arts by his architect father — he graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1976 — Baldwin rejected art after graduation and pursued a dance career instead. While at Elam he covertly used his scholarship fund to attend dance classes: ballet with Kevin Baddily and Russell Kerr, and modern dance with Mary Jane O’Reilly, another founding member of Limbs. Baldwin was also a member of Movement Theatre in 1976.
Kilda Northcott and Debbie McCulloch, both charismatic and experienced performers, had the least choreographic ambitions of the group. Twenty-two-year-old Northcott had studied dance since she was six years old, in Kawerau, and had recently returned to New Zealand from New York, where she was schooled in the techniques of José Limón and Merce Cunningham. Her year in New York (1975–1976) gave her performance opportunities in the works of the Hungarian choreographer Reka. Prior to this, Northcott had studied the Ausdruckstanz-inspired technique at the Bodenwieser school in Sydney. Debbie McCulloch had begun creative dance classes at the school of Dutch émigré Boukje Van Zon, in Auckland at age 10. Van Zon’s influence — the stressing of creativity and technique — was evident in McCulloch’s expressive dance qualities.
O’Reilly, the most experienced of the five founding members, had the most dance training, having been a member of the first graduating class of the New Zealand School of Dance in 1968. The following year she danced with the New Zealand Ballet Company. By 1970 O’Reilly was a scholarship student at the Royal Ballet School in London. While in London, in between stints as an extra with the Royal Ballet, O’Reilly had her first taste of modern concert dance at the London Contemporary Dance School. By 1976 she was back in Auckland and had opened her own studio, Dance Spectrum. Travelling to California for six months that year, she studied the techniques of Cunningham and Limón in San Francisco. Neither technique was known in New Zealand at this time, and when O’Reilly returned she taught them to her students, among them Jannides and Baldwin.
Devoid of narrative, symbolism or characterisation, Cunningham’s work pared down movement to its essence and avoided any trappings of sentimentality, romantic ideal, virtuosity or gender. [ . . . ] Cunningham’s men and women wore the same costumes, usually tights and leotards or all-in-one tights (unitards) designed to reveal the line of the movement. [ . . . ]
Mexican-American Limón was Doris Humphrey’s protégé, and developed her technique and aesthetic in his works. His technique worked on the principles of ‘fall and recovery’ . . . Music and musicality played a big part in both Limón’s technique and his choreography. [ . . . ] These vocabularies, concepts and techniques infiltrated the rehearsal studio of Limbs. They also transformed the dance-making processes of choreographers in New Zealand.
Jannides and Baldwin believed that dance could reflect contemporary life by utilising popular music, simple costumes and settings and by incorporating jazz, disco, ballet and/or pedestrian movement. Baldwin has said that he and Jannides ‘had notions of performance before we had technique’. Both had studied clowning and mime and were heavily influenced by the theories of English stage director and theorist Peter Brook. Their crossing of disciplines and approaches to art-making reflected many developments in popular culture in the 1970s. Popular music, visual art, fashion and drama often overlapped. The visual arts, in this post-modern age, often combined a ‘multiplicity of style and method’. ‘Happenings’ often included music, dance, street theatre and poetry readings. Baldwin’s first choreography, Square Dance (1978), was, as he explained it, ‘an art school sculptural-conceptual thing’. The work, inspired by the collaborations of Cunningham and the visual artist Robert Rauchenberg, began with Baldwin and Jannides marking a square on the floor of the performance space with masking tape. To the sound of a ticking metronome, the two men marched along the outside and gradually entered the square. Facing off, they came closer and finally performed a tango together.
Peter Brook’s belief that ‘space is a tool’ struck a chord with Jannides and Baldwin. It coincided with their idea of wanting ‘dance to access different places and different people’; Jannides in particular felt strongly that dance should not be a ‘theatrical, elitist thing’. Experimenting with Brook’s theories, which included breaking down the convention that proscenium arch theatres were the only acceptable ‘room’ for drama to take place, they took their dances outdoors, to cabarets, to fashion shows, nightclubs, into the foyers of theatres, car launches, student commons, schools and prisons.
Their vision of dance was manifested in Limbs, especially when it began to associate with other popular and alternative entertainments in New Zealand. Within its first two years of existence Limbs had performed at large outdoor music festivals such as Nambassa and Sweetwaters and had toured with diverse performing companies such as Ratz Theatrix, Blerta, Red Mole, The Plague, and Debbie and the Dum Dums. This enabled dance to become part of the late 1970s popular culture. Limbs’ appearance at the Nambassa and Sweetwaters music festivals exerted the greatest influence on both Limbs and their audiences. The dancers were exposed to huge audiences who most likely had never seen a modern, concert dance performance. This exposure, while giving modern dance a public profile, also made Limbs well known to a large segment of the population. The programmes that they performed at these festivals were no different from those they performed in theatres, thus achieving Jannides’s wish of breaking through the class barrier of theatre and elitist art by presenting ‘high’ art in a popular music setting.’ (pp. 234-237)
‘The New Dance Group, New Dance and Limbs Dance Company offered new experiences to their audiences. The 300 people who were present at the first performance of the New Dance Group in 1945 and the 1,200 who crammed into the Wellington Opera House in 1979 to see Limbs are testament to both the curiosity and appreciation of the public for this art form. This ‘new dance’ was speaking to people in ways that an evening at the ballet (or a rugby match) could not. Leaps and runs, turns and jumps, falls and lifts; one could see an athlete perform these moves but would a spectator be moved to ponder catastrophes in Europe, gender identities or conceptual art during a game? Dance is more than a vehicle for comprehension; it provides us with a way to experience our surroundings by transcending the everyday, the material, the tangible. The moving body in space can speak to the rational mind of history and, if we are aware, can transmit more than words can ever say. These reflections on modern concert dance within a New Zealand context enable us to reconsider how bodies in motion expressed, responded to and represented both international and national identities in the twentieth century. The world’s place in New Zealand could be seen in the bodies of dancers and the movements they spoke. It seems that modern concert dance in New Zealand did reflect the ‘real life, work and heritage in this country’, as Rona Bailey hoped in 1978, by presenting dances that made their audiences think, feel and question. In turn, audiences were connected to global forms of expression. However, unlike a novel or a painting, which can be revisited, the movements of the dancers discussed here were fleeting, their presence remembered only as phantom limbs.’ (p. 240)
New Zealand Journal of History, 45, 2 (2011) (pp. 225-245)
‘Phantom Limbs: Concert dance in New Zealand from the 1930s to the 1980s’ – Dr Marianne Schultz
A short history of Limbs and its formation can be found here on the Te Ara: Encyclopedia of New Zealand website: