Words and interview by Yana Papaya
Edited by Rina Patel
Photos by Katherine Brook
Watching “Quidam” the latest work by Cirque du Soleil here in Auckland, New Zealand, triggered a few curious questions in me. As an audience we are exposed and presented to the final polished art product, whether it’s a circus show, dance performance or music show. We are captivated by its evolving story from a beginning to end. We engage in the art piece as one collective whole sum. One piece of the puzzle may strongly resonate with us whilst another may not push the right buttons. This observation, for me, shows that if all the pieces of the art puzzle make our soul complete the more we likely live in the moment – which I think is the main and ultimate goal of art.
A story today, allows us to take a different perspective and be introduced to the creator’s life. A subject of interest today is to get an understanding of how it feels and just how much it takes to be an art’s creator. As part of our approach we decided to place the creative process under a microscope. We came up with the most fulfilling and fascinating results whilst talking to Stephen Shropshire, an Artistic Director and Dutch choreographer with a strong American background and influence, who would probably would prefer to call himself just a human being. But I would add that Stephen is a true Human Being with both capitals H & B.
Looking back in retrospect, Stephen Shropshire would call himself, ‘a human doing’ rather than a ‘human simply being’ because his focus, self-perception was different to his current one. He used to have more concerns about what it meant for him to be an Artistic Director, how much his self-identity relied on that social role he played. This self-perception has dramatically changed during the past 5-10 years. What hasn’t left Stephen’s spirit is his willingness and strong sense of courage. Our hero has never been afraid of a spontaneous change. This is how he came to make a decision one day; to literally leave beautiful fancy life in New York and move to the Netherlands armed only with two bags on his shoulders. Quite an interesting and unusual shift, isn’t it?
Going to see “Lumina”, three dance stories told by three different choreographers was my introduction to the extraordinary and rich world of Stephen Shropshire. His collaboration with the New Zealand Dance Company found expression in his latest work called “Geography of Archipelago”, a dance where everything seemed perfect to me. A synthesis between choreography, tangible and intangible interactions of visuals and sound – spectacular lighting work and a profound soundtrack, a beautiful concept that spoke for itself; what it means to be a human, to be honest to yourself, what it means to lose your self-identity and find it again. Watching “Geography of Archipelago” was like simultaneously falling in love and losing love. I felt as though I had been drawn upward to the sky and suddenly down underground. An angel with broken wings. Those were fifteen minutes that let me experience a full spectrum of feelings as well as being fully present in the moment. The artist’s goal had been achieved.
“Geography of Archipelago” was my first segway in to speak to its creator. I hoped for another opportunity to meet him in person again, so we could talk more about his life. That moment came along and this is how the story you are about to read became real.
Meet Stephen Shropshire, a creator, a talented choreographer, a handsome and gentle man, “ a mother’s son and the youngest brother,” and just an amazing Human Being who has so far experienced life in all its glory and in all its sadness. Take a ride along its distinct valleys and hills as you read of Stephen’s life, wisdom and thoughts.
I like going home to reconnect with my family – to be my mother’s son, my sister’s younger brother. There are no expectations about being yourself there. It’s very refreshing in that sense, because as a choreographer working in the business that is dance, there seems to always be expectations, about what you are trying to achieve and express in your work.
The journey back “home” is always about reconnecting to your true self, reaffirming the roots of your authenticity and understanding what grounds your creativity.
It has taken me 20 years to trust my creative process, to have the confidence to unabashedly reflect that which inspires me the most.
My choreography for the New Zealand Dance Company, “The Geography of Archipelago” is essentially a work about those same issues – identity and the search for where you belong. It also speaks about what it means to be on the artistic journey, about the empowerment engendered by the creative process.
The transformative aspects of that process and the results of that very personal journey are the things that no one could ever take from you – of course a critic can judge the result, they can partition the work into a box that they define, but they can never claim ownership to the transformative experience of the creative act and that’s very empowering. This I feel, is what a creative life teaches you.
I believe that sometimes I need to make 100 mistakes for one good idea. It’s a process of discovery and failure, a process of subtraction.
When I present a new choreography for the first time, I have to open myself up, mentally and spiritually. I have to expose “all-of-these-very-close-to-the-skin-things” for other people to judge and maybe step on.
Choosing the right dancer for a piece is lot like falling in love. It is immediate and sometimes beyond reason. For ‘Geography’ I taught a class, where three dancers stood out for me. They were the type that I felt that I could engage in a conversation with through the medium of dance. You just sense that these are the right people to take this journey with.
That said, I think that I am a terrible teacher. I have very high expectations and I am very impatient. Although I love to talk about the work, I think that I am not very good at teaching. I don’t think that I am meant to teach, though no one has run for the hills from any of my classes, yet! (laughs).
In 2012, I lost my company – Noord Nederlandse Dans – due to the financial crisis in the Netherlands. It was incredibly painful. I was left thinking seriously about my future in dance and if I actually wanted continue. I had lost my company, lost my job, my professional identity. And since that moment I have been trying to figure out who I am, where I fit in. I considered leaving dance altogether to pursue other goals. I thought about many things, about becoming a chef and opening my own restaurant or maybe running a hotel. But luckily, at the time, the National Dance Company of Wales was restaging a choreography of mine and so I went to Cardiff to rehearse it. When I walked into the studio I was immediately struck by a feeling of place – of coming home; and I knew at that moment that dance is still the tribe where I belong.
One day I just woke up and remembered that, as a child, I never dreamt of being an Artistic Director. I didn’t dream of being a choreographer or even a dancer then. So why would I let myself be defined by them now. They are not actually me, they are just jobs that I did. And once I understood that – I could finally let go of the sadness, the sense of loss. That is not to diminish my love of the work or my commitment to it, but rather the clarify the separation of my identity from the authority of any role or position. So, I am no longer the Artistic Director, but I never was an Artistic Director actually… It was a role that I assumed for a certain period of time. And maybe I will again someday, but I hope then to be wiser, because it can be disorienting.
When people take your calls because of your position, and then suddenly they don’t anymore…That’s disorienting. You think that you are no longer worthy, no longer loved. But you should know that all these thoughts are just nonsense!
I think that we all want all the same thing – we want to be loved. Simple as that. That’s the human condition. We want to be valued. We want to be loved. And I think we spend our lives searching to feel that in whatever way we can.
Creativity is sometimes an act of burning the wick at both ends. The challenge is to negotiate that fine line between unleashing ones creativity and self destruction, to achieve some sort of precarious balance that might minimize the suffering later on.
But the risk is a necessary one, because the creative process allows me the opportunity to express and to deal with issues that I might not otherwise have the strength to confront.
There is a wonderful book by Twyla Tharp called “The Creative Habit” where she talks about randomly collecting bits and pieces of inspiration, which may later – upon deeper reflection – start to form a cohesive whole. And that’s what I think I do in my process as well. When I start to create, I am picking up details, choosing music. I am thinking about certain things that I am interested in, for example, I may like a certain colour, I am very interested in that sculpture or painting, while another thing might come up out of nowhere. And all of sudden, at one point, the pieces start to come together.
My creative process might be similar to a treasure hunt, when you are picking different things up. You are figuring out how those things are connected and at one point they do.
I love the game. I love the reveal. I like those stories when you think it’s one thing and it turns out to be another. It’s my favourite.
I am not setting myself up to be inspired. It just happens naturally. I don’t think you can expect it or force it. You are drawn to certain things at certain moments, serendipitously.
In New Zealand I am immediately drawn to the West coast beaches, beaches like Piha. Even simply watching a gorgeous storm coming in towards you at Bethell’s beach. The New Zealand West coast is so violent, raw and explosive, so russian.
To me, my time in New Zealand has been like watching a great whale breaking the surface of the water, revealing just a glimpse of itself in the vastness of the ocean. It excites me, inspires me and makes me want to come back. I feel like there is a great depth of beauty and strength to be still discovered here.
If I had to paint a portrait to represent New Zealand, it would be dark mangled bush, twisted wild and wet, pierced and crowned by the light of the sun. The country is so rich in contrast, it inspires me. Maybe because I live in Holland where everything is flat and so often grey.
Travel humbles you. And I think it’s necessary to feel humbled, to confront things larger than yourself – to humble oneself is to reignite one’s sense of place, context, universality.
I recently traveled to Japan, to Kyoto, for those same reasons. I had been to Japan many years before and it was an immediate kind of love. I was fascinated by its mysteries, its sense of ritual, and of course its overwhelming beauty. I had wanted to go back for many years to again immerse myself in that. Now, I don’t speak Japanese – so to discover new forms of beauty and to see the things that I wanted to see, I had to be a kind of child again, to depend on the kindness of strangers to give me correct directions, to guide me. I had to trust. And this state of vulnerability does something to you, it opens you up. You realise your place in the world, you realise that you are insignificant and at the same time you are incredibly present and part of a much larger tribe. Travel is hugely important in maintaining a life view that it is positive, generous, kind and humble.
In 1999 I made the decision to leave New York City and move to The Netherlands. After ten years in the City, I left everything – my apartment, my friends, all of my furniture… I arrived in Amsterdam with only two bags on my shoulder. At the time, all I dreamt about was finding a small room, getting a mattress for the floor and filling the room with hundreds of tulips. That never did happen (probably a good things because that many tulips would poison you in your sleep), but when you cross the ocean with only 2 bags and nothing else, you realise that you don’t need much – just a dream wild enough to get you there.
All the beautiful things that I had in New York – all of the precious ‘things’ I spent years collecting – I realised that I didn’t need them. I also realised that I didn’t need the emotional ‘things’ I had been collecting either. I didn’t need the heartbreaks, the broken relationships. Or the person I had become to armour myself against the malaise of being a late twenty-something dancer trying to survive in New York City. I could, if I was willing to, create a new future for myself. A better one built on the lessons and mistakes that I’d made along the way. Looking back, I realise too that maybe I was running… but the way I see it, at least I was running in a direction.
For me, dance and my experience of it, is religious, it’s ritual, it’s daily prayer. It always was – that’s why I loved to dance. I danced to be completely present, without future, without the past – deeply connected to the now.
And your true self is infinite, isn’t it?
Ambition is a very sharp sword.
Success is relative. How I define success today might be different in two weeks. Today, I think success is measured by how much I have transformed and consequently, how I may have transformed the people around me.
I don’t know what I like. I like everything different today.
My favourite part of the day? I love beginnings and endings
And hanging out with my dogs, looking after them give me a real sense of relaxation. And it also humbles me. They don’t care about your day, they just simply want to go for a walk or be fed.
My father passed away a year ago. I was lucky enough to be with him the weeks before he died, and it was perhaps one of the most beautiful things that I have ever experienced. To be part of that transition, to be with someone as they leave this place was incredibly beautiful. of course it was sad, as a family we grieved…but the experience of it, the humbling, it blew my mind. It was the most extraordinary thing – to bear witness to that great divide. And I think that if I hadn’t lost the dance company I would have never been there, so it’s all connected. That’s beyond my expectation, you have to trust. Accept things as they are…so no loss is a loss, it’s a shift…
My biggest fear is that somebody I love deeply would not know how much I love them. That’s the thing that pops into my head, Though I can’t say if that’s really my biggest fear or not….maybe I am just afraid of failure… (laughs)