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Pivot Pointe
December 8, 2020

In Conversation With Corey Baker

Choreographer & Filmmaker

Corey is a New Zealand-born choreographer and filmmaker. Fuelled by a passion that dance is for everyone, Corey takes dance out of traditional settings and brings it to stadiums, skyscrapers, parks, playgrounds, rugby fields, and onto TV, film, and even Antarctica. Corey formed Corey Baker Dance in 2014 and has since created and produced over 20 works through his company. In 2020 alone, CBD released three viral dance films; two focused on the climate emergency and supported by the UNEP, and one made entirely remotely during the pandemic: Swan Lake Bath Ballet.

We asked Corey about his journey.

You've come quite a long way since we last met as teenagers in New Zealand! As I recall, you had just started ballet and were planning to audition for the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). Can you share more about that experience?

Corey Baker: So, from memory, I was about fourteen or fifteen years old at the time, and I had only been dancing ballet for less than two years. I had done tap, jazz, and contemporary for longer, but I had no idea what it meant to be a ballet dancer. I made an impulsive decision to audition for full-time ballet schools as it seemed like the logical progression. At the time, there was only one full-time ballet school available in New Zealand, the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). I was already studying at the International Ballet Academy (IBA), which was another full-time school, but sadly because of financial difficulties, they had to switch to part-time. I had saved up all my money from my part-time job at Starbucks and spent it all to audition in Wellington.

During that audition class, the teacher gave me a correction that I disagreed with at the time, bearing in mind, I was still relatively new to ballet! Long story short, I didn't get into the school, and that was upsetting not only in the context of being rejected and not having the technique, but it felt like an overall rejection of the lifestyle that I had dreamed up and wanted for myself. I wasn't aware of any other versions of this dream, or that there could even be the possibility of other schools in different countries. I was very much in my young teenage ignorant bubble and devastated after that audition. It would have been incredibly easy for me to quit and give up at that point (and I did toy with the idea). Had it not been for my incredible teacher at IBA, Carl Myers, whom I love with all my heart, who offered more information on other schools out there, beyond New Zealand.

Madeleine Graham on Antarctica. Photo by Jacob Bryant

I don't come from a theater-going family; I think people have better access to wifi than they do with theatre, so I'm passionate about trying to cultivate a love for ballet, dance, and art in a new younger audience.

Not getting into the NZSD led you to Tanya Pearson Academy in Sydney, Australia, opening doors to many opportunities that otherwise would not have happened had you stayed in New Zealand. Starting with the Academy's European tour, what were the events that followed?

Corey: After IBA, I moved to Sydney to train at Tanya Pearson Coaching Academy for a year. Luckily, I was able to get a scholarship—they probably felt sorry for me, and thank goodness they did! Otherwise, there would have been no way for my mum and me to afford the training. Back then, I had to get up every day at seven in the morning, and I would finish around six in the evening, then I would work at a pizza shop from seven to ten in the evening every day.

That school and Tanya Pearson were so innovative and practical in job making, opening pathways, doing talent development, and giving opportunities. The school did this annual European tour, where they took select students around to European schools plus apprenticeship schemes, depending on the level of the student. So, we went around Europe and auditioned at 21 different places, which was fantastic because I was in Australia/New Zealand, and there were only two or three companies that could offer jobs. It was clear that even though Tanya Pearson would benefit from having her students stay at the school longer, she created opportunities for students to pursue their final year of training overseas.

For me, I ended up in Basel, Switzerland, at Theater Ballettschule Basel. There, I remember thinking I was in Sweden for the first month! It was incredible. Tanya Pearson knew that I had an interest in choreography; I was lucky to have had some opportunities back in Sydney to develop and create choreographies on the side. There was also a teacher, Serge, an ex-Royal Ballet Principal who would play the piano after school and on lunch breaks, and who allowed me to experiment with movement.

Tanya Pearson strategically suggested that I show Theater Ballettschule Basel and other European schools a solo I had created to Serge's music. It was much better than my classical at the time in an attempt to increase my chances, I guess! So when I got into Basel, Tanya came into the room and negotiated a choreographic element to my apprenticeship! I was able to continue my dance training while getting paid, do classes and pieces with the company, and have the opportunity to choreograph on the main stage. It's all pretty phenomenal now when I think about it. I mean, I was sixteen or seventeen, and at that age, you don't have any notion of how to negotiate, or what you want to do in three years. I'm incredibly grateful to her for doing that.

In those early days, how did real-time experimental learning influence your development as a choreographer?

Corey: Basel has a big company and opera house with loads of studios and dancers in the school and company. We weren't always in class or rehearsals, so I would work and jam in the available studios with dancers. Eventually, I made the realization that I would be making pieces on the main stage, which helped solidify the idea of, "alright, let's make this a thing," other than just being passionate about choreography.

Without any hard deadlines, I was able to explore in the studio with dancers, and what I learned from doing so was how to communicate with dancers; what I liked, and I guess, the job of a choreographer. It's changed 5,000 times and continues to change, but it's always dependent upon many things. Ultimately, Basel allowed me to play with that in a very safe environment, which was super fundamental and fantastic.

It wasn't until you relocated to the U.K. that your work as a choreographer took off. You juggled between dancing, teaching, and choreographing before departing from ballet to focus on choreography full-time. Why did it become an either-or decision in the end?

Corey: All training and professional dancers out there will fully understand that there is no other space in your life for anything else if you want to take the art form seriously. I think people who aren't dancers don't fully grasp how demanding it is from every inch; what you eat, what you do, what you wear, where you go, how you train, your relaxation, your massages, your whole life is built around your training and profession.

So, while I was still dancing professionally and after moving to freelance, the demand and responsibility for my training and everything were becoming greater and greater. As a choreographer, I started to realize, "oh wow," there's a whole other list of demands that also need your full-time energy, just like when you're a full-time dancer. So, I was struggling to switch between the two because they're very different. As a choreographer, you're still able to move your body to some degree; there are other parts of your body you're training, such as your imagination and childlike ability to dream and collaborate and think, or to network and partner, and all that other stuff. That's very consuming. I found that I was detrimental to both by not fully committing to one or the other.

Choreography then wasn't my full-time job, so it was kind of easy to give dance more of my energy, but I knew that I didn't want to be a dancer anymore. I knew if I wanted to become a choreographer, I'd have to switch the energy. It wasn't easy; it was hard, and a part of me thought I was giving up. I was lucky with the dancing that I did get to do what I did and work with the choreographers that I did. It was what it was.

Take time for yourself because at the end of the day, ballet doesn't matter! I mean, it does, but in the grand scheme of things, live your life.

During the rise to recognition, you assumed roles like rehearsal director that helped provide further training and insight into the many facets of a choreographer's role. How eye-opening was this experience?

Corey: It was very eye-opening. I was lucky that the choreographers I was working with at the time knew I wanted to become a choreographer—mostly because I kept telling them that and how I thought the piece that they were making on me should be going! In becoming the lead dancer, I managed to teach company class a lot more—where it was appropriate in companies.

The rehearsal directing opportunities came up when a company was remounting a show, but I was choreographing and not being able to be in that show, so I'd come back and rehearse or direct it for a few days here and there. And that led me to be able to learn those skills and apply them as rehearsal director in assistant choreographer roles to support choreographers I knew and ones that I didn't know. The part-time work helped me get paid and allowed me to continue developing my choreography work when I was moving away from being a dancer. It was so helpful because first, I got to learn all the other facets of being a choreographer, and second, learn about the best way or, rather, different ways to rehearse a dancer. As an assistant choreographer, I'd have to go to marketing meetings and even sit in on board meetings; I was learning all these things I never knew. I had influence and was a part of the process without ever having the pressure of my name being attached to the piece. I guess like a university for choreography, which I know there is (and I feel funny about that), but it was beyond helpful.

Photo by Ryan Capstick

From Antarctica to a piece with the United Nations about World Environmental Day, and Swan Lake Bath Ballet with the BBC, you are never short of innovation! As creative as you are, your work is also heavily rooted in activism and helping move dance forward in new ways. How does it work all work; your creative process?

Corey: That's fair to say that there is some activism rooted in my work because I'm not someone who will create for the sake of creating; I love what I do. I know as a choreographer, I'm very privileged to be in the position I'm in, and I feel the responsibility for bettering the world in some shape or form, or at least, our art form, through other projects.

I'm not a fan of the same old thing because art should be new and exciting as well as current and relevant, and oddly, with Swan Lake, for example, I swore to myself to never create a classic/historic ballet as they can be hard to build on. I understand why ballet companies do and repeat them because it makes money, and it acts as a museum, making people fall in love with the classics all over again. But, once upon a time, they were original ballets; they were contemporary ballets, and as a modern-day contemporary/ballet choreographer, I feel like it's my job to use new stories to create new exciting things. However, I did make Swan Lake Bath Ballet, which was only 3-mins long as I think Swan Lake should be, and it was about connecting people and creating something and having a platform during Covid-19. It was doing something to bring art back to so many people.

Other than that project, I did find a lot of work around climate change, which is super important to me. I think in a world where fake news and dodgy world leaders are abundant, we have a lot of statistics and information we can't digest. I believe art plays a crucial role in creating a visceral experience for people to understand and connect with serious topics, such as climate change. Ballet and art should be pushed in its delivery, as well as have diversity in its casting and creation. Whether it be geographical, economically, or culturally speaking, a lot of people don't have access to or don't want to go to the opera house. I think we have a responsibility to think about where we put our art and how to get people to engage with it. I don't come from a theater-going family; I think people have better access to wifi than they do with theatre, so I'm passionate about trying to cultivate a love for ballet, dance, and art in a new younger audience.

Knowing what you know now, what words would you have said to your 17-year-old self?

Corey: Don't lose your inner child! I feel a lot of people think we should all be grown-ups and act seriously, constantly focusing on work, money, and legal matters. Being able to play and be creative while diving into your imagination is incredibly beneficial. Take time for yourself because at the end of the day, ballet doesn't matter! I mean, it does, but in the grand scheme of things, live your life.

Probably also get a haircut! When I look back at those pictures, I mean, damn! I had some weird haircuts!

Top image courtesy of Corey Baker

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