By Sarah Jost
As I witnessed last month, the work of choreographer Royston Maldoom is not only spectacular, but exemplifies the potential for art to impact, improve, and change lives. Born in England in 1943, Maldoom was studying agriculture at university when he first watched a film about dance. He fell passionately in love and never looked back. A testament to drive and dreams, Maldoom enrolled in a local dance school before going on to obtain scholarships to specialized dance academies.
After winning several major international awards for his choreography, Maldoom was appointed the Dance Artist in Residence of Fife in Scotland. It was through the workshops, summer schools, dance festivals, and community dance groups for teenagers and adults he established there that Maldoom developed his philosophy of Community Dance. This philosophy of engagement in dance as a way to strengthen communities as well as individuals has majorly influenced and informed his life’s work.
After completing his residency, Maldoom established annual summer dance projects in Scotland that afforded community members of varying experience the opportunity to rehearse and perform in a professional venue. This truly set the stage for Maldoom’s community-based dance works worldwide, which have included choreographing former street children in Ethiopia, marginalised youth in Peru, Catholic and Protestant youth in Northern Ireland, male and female prison inmates, differently-abled children and adults, young people excluded from mainstream education, and children-in-exile.
Maldoom’s work not only empowers and entertains the communities during his visits, but continues to benefit participants long after he has left. In Ethiopia, Maldoom and several collaborators formed the Adugna Dance Company, which not only offered its students dance, choreography, and teaching training, but provided them accreditation from the University of Middlesex, London upon completion, allowing them access to careers in dance both at home and abroad.
Recently, Maldoom has been choreographing large groups of children and young people to performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by orchestras all over the world, from Berlin to New York City to Addis Ababa. Le Sacre du Printemps in Berlin, which paired Maldoom with 250 disadvantaged young people, including refugees and immigrants, was documented in the film Rhythm Is It!
My first week in New Zealand, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Sacre: The Auckland Dance Project, wherein Maldoom choreographed 190 local children to the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The dance told of the Maori’s (New Zealand’s native people) South Pacific voyage from The Arrival (Te Taenga Mai) to The Separation (Te Wehenga).
The experience of seeing nearly two hundred bodies in choreographed motion was breathtaking. Maldoom’s font of ingenuity in creating movement seemed endless as dance after dance painted moving, life-infused pictures and instilled from moment to moment ever-evolving gut reactions of fear, tension, awe, and uncontainable joy. The costumes and lighting were so seamlessly paired with the movement that individual bodies were at times indistinguishable.
Tiny children, the youngest of whom couldn’t have been more than four or five, not only remembered all of their choreography, but executed it with a passion and intention children’s dance recitals would lead you to believe wasn’t possible. There enlies the genius of Maldoom. 190 children, the vast majority of which without any prior dance training, performed easily one of the best dances I have seen in years, if not in my entire life. While trained professional dancers are an art in themselves, Maldoom’s community dance work demonstrates the innate artistry possible in all, as well as the vast capabilities of choreographic creativity.
Maldoom has been awarded a variety of honors across the globe, including an Order of the British Empire for Services to Dance. This and all others, I can personally attest, are exceedingly deserved. Attending a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps will assuredly transform any previously held notion about the boundaries of dance and choreography.
Throughout Sacre: The Auckland Dance Project, I couldn’t help but think about the luck of every single child in the performance. The opportunity to participate in such an incredible production, at one of your country’s most important cultural centers no less, can for some be once in a life time. For these children, that time came early, which for many will ensure that it is not their last. Their faces at curtain call were electric. Thanks to Maldoom, some of the children learned what it took Maldoom himself until age 20 to discover: the joy of art.