Ballet bones, but a bigger voice

By Francesca Emms
Photography by Eva Meyer-Keller

Featured in Capital #69
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Apparently it’s quite a feat to get time with Kate McIntosh. The Brussels-based Wellington-born “creative genius”, as her former dance teacher Deirdre Tarrant (our own Welly Angel) describes her, is in demand.

Even so, while she was home for a summer holiday (pre-Covid) she happily met Francesca Emms for a chat in a cafe.

I’d been told that Kate McIntosh is a dancer, and it’s clear from her posture and grace that this is true, but she’s also much, much more. In fact, the first time I came across her, back in 2015, she was performing All Ears, a participatory solo sound piece. She’s a performer, or as she puts it, “I work in performance”. But dance is where it all began.

Six-year-old Kate fell off a wall, hit her head, and suffered a concussion. “I was struggling for about a year. I remember being very confused about everything,” she says. Her parents wondered whether dance might help her recover, so she found herself in Deirdre Tarrant’s ballet class on Cuba Street. “I really remember one week being there and she was teaching the sequence and all the other kids were getting it. And I couldn’t string it together. It was like moving through fog, I just couldn’t get it,” says Kate. But the next week it began to come together, and around the same time she began to recover from her concussion

Kate studied ballet with Deirdre for the next 13 years, working her way up to the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the studio’s annual production. “Training with Deidre was really fantastic, because the whole focus was on the idea of performing. The end-of-year productions were these completely magical events. The idea that you could create another world on stage, that you could make this kind of bubble of time where another reality was true – I found it deeply magical.”

At 19 Kate moved to Brisbane to do a degree in dance, something that wasn’t offered in New Zealand at the time. “That was the only reason I left.” She studied and worked as a contemporary dancer in Australia for a few years before moving to Europe. She’s spent the past 20 years abroad working in performance.

Her work is multi-faceted and her roles include dancer, choreographer, writer, actor, artist, sound designer, musician, and director. “With every new performance, I always try to do something that I have no idea how to do. So with each project I accumulate another thing that I’m a bit more experienced in.” For example, when Kate first started making her own performance work, she went straight for texts and the spoken word because “I had done nothing like that before.”

In 2011 Kate created a work for contemporary dance company Footnote Dance. The piece, Hullapolloi, was a collaboration between Kate, Footnote, and Kate’s childhood buddy Jo Randerson. Hullapolloi toured New Zealand, won “Best of Fringe” in Dunedin, and received rave reviews before travelling to Germany in 2012 to open the Frankfurt Book Fair. At the time, Deirdre described it as “a very strong and unexpected collaborative work. There’s a strong element of surprise and confrontation. Hullapolloi explores these issues of consumerism and materialism and aims to put the human back into humanity.” Looking back, Deirdre now says it was “radical” and “ahead of its time”.

Kate and Deirdre are still in close contact. “Kate’s always been special,” says Deirdre. “She’s quite amazing and very clever.” Deirdre often goes to Europe to see Kate’s work, which she describes as “intelligent dance” and “a movement statement in her own words.” She says her former pupil is “highly thought of” in Europe, and “arguably our most outstanding contemporary dancer, though unsung in New Zealand.”

The last time Kate performed in Wellington, I happened to be in the audience. The show was supposed to be a duet, she tells me. But the other performer needed to pull out and she realised she’d have to create a one-woman show. “I really didn’t want to make a solo, because I’ve done it a few times before and it’s quite a painful process,” she says. “I thought, ‘ah, I don’t want to, I really don’t want to do this on my own. Damnit, I’m going to get the audience to do it with me. We’re going make a show together’.” Suddenly Kate was creating a participatory show, “which I’d never done before and I really don’t like participation at all.” In fact, she has a “natural suspicion of such situations.” I agree, and tell her, “I hate audience participation, but I liked your show.” She laughs, “I’m glad you say that, because my whole ambition was to make sure that even I would agree to participate in it.”

She didn’t want to break the normal contract between the audience and the stage. “It would be the way you would expect to go in a theatre, that you buy your ticket, you sit down, you watch something on stage. But how do they participate if they’re not going to leave their seats?” She thought about how the audience sits a lot like a choir or even an orchestra, “a bank of people all looking one way. So I thought, okay, they’re going to do the sound for this piece.” The result was All Ears, in which Kate transformed the stage into a sound laboratory and ran a series of acoustic experiments with help from the audience.

Deirdre remembers Kate joining her class all those years ago. “I was aware that dance was helping her,” she says, referring to the head injury. Plenty of research has shown dance movement therapy benefits survivors of head injuries. Despite her 13 years of ballet training, Kate says she knew she wouldn’t be a ballerina: “I’d never been a very technical dancer, I was always a performer.” Deirdre agrees, adding that Kate was too tall – so tall in fact that Kate’s father built a special barre in Deirdre’s studio so that Kate could work at the right height. “She was never going to be a ballet dancer,” says Deirdre. “She has ballet bones, but she’s found a bigger voice.”

The world is very different from how it was when we had a coffee together at the start of 2020. “Looking to Aotearoa from Europe now, I’m so glad that you can gather in crowds again for live arts. It hasn’t been possible here for a long time,” she says. “It’s so clear that communities dealing with change need all the imaginative skills and inspiration they can get; spaces where people can connect, dream and open new perspectives.” She says now is the time to treasure the stimulation and challenge that the arts can bring, and especially to support workers in the arts. “It’s a fragile field, having an even rougher time with precarity than usual.”


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