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March 20, 2023

In Conversation With Loughlan Prior

Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographer in Residence, Creative Director at Prior Visual, and Artistic Director of Lo|Co Arts.

Described by Dance Aotearoa New Zealand as ‘a creative tour de force’, Loughlan Prior is an award-winning choreographer and creative director working between stage and screen. He is the Artistic Director of Lo | Co Arts and Choreographer in Residence at the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Following his training at the New Zealand School of Dance, Loughlan joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2010 and rose to the rank of Soloist, performing landmark works by Forsythe, Balanchine, Kylián, Cranko, and Ekman.

Establishing himself as an emerging voice in 2015, he became the first recipient of the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand’s Harry Haythorne Choreographic Award, and in 2016 received Creative New Zealand’s Tup Lang Award, traveling to Toronto to stage his work at the Assemblée Internationale. Loughlan was appointed RNZB Choreographer in Residence in 2018 and founded Lo | Co Arts, an ensemble of multi-disciplinary artists, in 2019 with composer, artistic collaborator, and co-director Claire Cowan.

Prior’s cinematic and unifying approach to music, choreography, concept, and visual storytelling is a key feature within his works. Notable productions include Hansel & Gretel (2019, RNZB), The Appearance of Colour (2019, Queensland Ballet), Transfigured Night (2021, Chamber Music New Zealand, BalletCollective Aotearoa), The Firebird (2021, RNZB), Cinderella (2022, RNZB), Half | Life (2022 Lo | Co Arts), The Sound was our Ocean (2022, Singapore Ballet) and Inklings (2022, Ballet Unleashed - Australian Ballet School, New Zealand School of Dance, Canada’s National Ballet School, The Ailey School).

He has created numerous live and digital works for a diverse range of local Kiwi companies, festivals, and creative partners, including Te Papa National Museum, Auckland Arts Festival, Dunedin Arts Festival, Wānaka Festival of Colour, Tempo Festival, iD Fashion Week, Vogue Australia, WGT LUX Light Festival, Zambesi, the New Zealand String Quartet and TV3’s Dancing with the Stars. In 2022 Loughlan was invited as a distinguished graduate to present an evening-length program of five works (Storm Surge, Verse, Curious Alchemy, Time Weaver, Coloratura) for the New Zealand School of Dance performance season.

Under the umbrella PriorVisual, Loughlan has produced a number of dance/art films that have enjoyed screenings at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, New Zealand International Film Festival, Film Society of Lincoln Center, BalletX Beyond, #60secondsdance Denmark and the Short Film Corner of the Cannes Film Festival.

In 2023 Loughlan will premiere Woman of Words, a new one-act ballet celebrating the life of famed New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, and adapt the beloved Australian children's story Possum Magic for the stage, to mark its 40th anniversary. The Royal New Zealand Ballet will tour his critically acclaimed production of Hansel & Gretel across Aotearoa for Christmas 2023.

We asked Loughlan about his journey.

How was your transition from dancer to choreographer?

Loughlan Prior: Taking that leap was quite tricky.

When I was dancing full-time it felt very easy to get caught up in the ballet bubble; the intensity of training and the focus required to do the job doesn't allow for much else.

I actually ended up taking a sabbatical in 2017 to do some exploring. Geographically we are a long way from other dance communities in New Zealand, so for me, it felt important to gain exposure and perspective in order to fully commit to transitioning to full-time choreographic practice. I was very lucky that the New Zealand School of Dance had commissioned a work from me that year which went across to Canada - to Toronto’s Assemblée Internationale. I was able to immerse myself in that beautiful experience, engage with choreographic peers, and see the other types of work being developed.

Lo | Co Arts in rehearsal - Photo by Sarah Davies

It’s a choreographer’s dream to land a residency with a ballet company. How did that opportunity come about with The Royal New Zealand Ballet?

Loughlan: I was so hungry to be a choreographer, and at the beginning, I really put myself out there. I think having the right amount of tenacity in our business is a really good thing. Once RNZB saw my drive, they nurtured my passion.

In 2015 I received the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Award from the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand, which is connected to our in-house choreographic showcase series.

I think that moment gave me the confidence to start creating independent projects, and then that’s when things really took flight. I started to generate a substantial body of work and received recognition in the dance community in New Zealand and overseas. When Patricia Barker joined the company as Artistic Director in 2017, she was impressed by the work I had been making and my efficiency in-studio creation. In 2018, I became Choreographer in Residence.

You’ve got an extensive choreographic portfolio ranging from narrative work to pieces with no storyline, such as Hansel & Gretel, The Appearance of Colour, The Firebird, and so on. Which one do you prefer doing (narratives or no narratives)?

Loughlan: I really love them both! Working between the two keeps things fresh.

Say, I'm working on a narrative project, and then the next work I undertake, I like it to be really abstract. It’s nice to creatively cleanse the palate as both genres are so different. With narrative, you are responsible for making sense of every movement and telling a full and comprehensive story for your audience. With non-narrative work, I find it slightly more exploratory, and a much faster way of working. Abstract work can focus on pure form, movement, and architecture.

In addition to your RNZB residency, you are the Creative Director at Prior Visual and Artistic Director of Lo|Co Arts. How important is it to experiment with other mediums of art?

Loughlan: It's very important. I love collaborating with other artists to inform what I do—it elevates my process and my thinking. I'm fascinated with the global vision of a project. Working with a team of creative artists is so liberating because we are in it together and bringing all of our ideas to life in a supported and exciting way. Dance-making is fun when you have a really great team of people with you.

It's also important to learn different creative languages. Speaking the language of a composer or a designer allows you to understand where they're coming from and how their work informs yours. The same goes for any creative artist. It's the global view of the project; It's strong because of the collective bond.

Principal Artists Mayu Tanigaito as Cinderella and Laurynas Véjalis as The Royal Messenger, Photo by Stephen A'Court

Having been a former dancer, does it help ease the choreographic process, communication, and casting of dancers?

Loughlan: I never want to forget what it was like to dance. To be vulnerable and to experience the joy and beauty of creating something new with your body is so special. As a dancer, I loved new creations and working with choreographers who were deeply connected to their process in the studio.

I think storytelling and narrative work is so fulfilling because working with a choreographer in these spaces becomes so much more than repertoire; there is the chance to make the role your own. Now as a choreographer, I love to see dancers transform and own the ideas behind the work. If they can go beyond the steps, and fully inhabit their character, then I’ve done my job.

In terms of casting a ballet, I'm very aware of who's in front of me and which artist might suit a role best; I look at personalities and how a dancer's unique assets might enhance a particular role.

In maintaining your craft, how do you explore, practice, and build on your choreographic skills?

Loughlan: It's very dependent on the project I'm doing, or the project coming up. I'm always listening to music and looking for interesting stories to tell. If I'm going into a new creation, I'm in the studio by myself working out ideas. I also do a lot of mind mapping and writing.

I think it's very helpful to write a study for particular characters that feature in a new work. You are not necessarily making steps, but you know the way they're going to react and respond in the wider world of the story. Take the new adaptation of Cinderella (break your glass slippers) I created for RNZB last year: our process began with sitting down and dreaming up Cinderella’s character and story arc. What is she about? How do we want the audience to perceive her? She's ‘stubborn’, ‘courageous’, and ‘not a shrinking wall-flower...  jot down all of these really fantastic descriptive words to allow us to get into the character's head.

I think starting with this process is so important to then building the choreography; it informs the dynamic qualities, speed, gesture, and nuance of a role. A road map like this gives the artist so much more freedom on stage too. It makes it real, and there's a kind of tactile, ‘lived-in’ quality to everyone’s performance on stage.

Can you describe one of the most pivotal points in your career?

Loughlan: It would have to be in 2019 when I retired from dancing and choreographed my first full-length ballet, Hansel and Gretel. We created a really great show, which I was so proud of.

Hanging up the ballet shoes at a younger age than perhaps I could have, or should have, was a pretty bold move at the time. It was a risk that definitely paid off, however, as it has allowed for some wonderful opportunities. It’s remarkable how the universe works when you open yourself up.

Hansel & Gretel is coming back this year! The Royal New Zealand Ballet is doing the production for the second time in October!

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Hansel & Gretel. Photo by Stephen A'Court

What’s next for Loughlan Prior?

Loughlan: So many things, which I'm not allowed to talk about, haha.

I can talk about one… I'm currently working on a really exciting one-act work for the Royal New Zealand Ballet to premiere at Wānaka’s Festival of Color.

Woman of Words is a new biographical narrative that chronicles the life of famed New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, exploring her personal stories and the people who inspired the ideas behind her work. Mansfield played a central role in shaping modern literature by experimenting with style, subject matter, and theme, with the analysis of anxiety, sexuality, and existentialism embroiled within her writing. In remaining true to her brilliant and singular voice, she created a body of work that redefined the genre.

Katherine’s intense, captivating, and all-too-short life is brought to the stage using integrated text and sound design. Beginning with her early years growing up in Wellington, to the height of London bohemia and the Bloomsbury group, to her death at the age of thirty-four, Woman of Words celebrates Katherine’s winding journey and her passion for creativity, love, and life.

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