My Story: Dancer Sean MacDonald, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Sean MacDonald’s latest project, Ngā Wai, is a poetic work inspired by the sacred waters of Wāimarama, Sean’s ancestral home. Created for Atamira Dance Company, it will premiere at Auckland’s Q Theatre, November 26-28.

My mother was down in Christchurch one Christmas. She was out getting fruit when her waters broke and I was born on Christmas morning. She said it was the best present they’d ever had.Being born on Christmas Day never used to bother me though, I still got a birthday cake and I had two presents instead of one.

Growing up in the ’70s, it was such an innocent time. Everyone looked after everyone. We freely flowed through all our mates’ houses and we never locked our doors. I didn’t know what a key was till I was in my teens. We were so carefree, well-fed, happy and loved. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Mum and Dad worked incredibly hard to give us everything we needed.

I grew up with four older sisters. Mum was a nurse, and Dad was a salesman. He was a natural sportsman too, he played representative rugby and was a keen golfer. He was also a natural musician and could play any instrument you’d hand to him. Dad had an instinct for physicality, musicianship, and telling jokes. I was about 5 when dad asked if I wanted to play rugby, and I said no. He never pushed it and was great about letting me do my thing. Although, probably, with me being the youngest, and Mum and Dad having been through all the stuff with my sisters, by the time they got to me, I think they just gave me an easier time.

One turning point was entering a dance competition at a club in town called The Underground. They had this “underage rage” where everyone danced and, if you were tapped on the shoulder, you had to leave the floor. I won and the prize was a hundred bucks. Then Dad passed away when I was 18. He was taken way before his time, so I didn’t fully get to know him as I was still in my own world, an awkward teenager, trying to discover who I was, and going through all the changes of life.

In my last year of school, I moved from Auckland Grammar to Selwyn College, which leaned more towards the liberal arts. When Wendy Preston from Limbs came and did a workshop,she asked if I’d ever thought about taking up dance. Of course, I was wondering what to do with my life – I felt like I should study economics, law or medicine although I was more into theatre and dance – so when Wendy encouraged me to do a diploma in contemporary dance at Auckland Performing Arts School, that’s what I did.

After two years of training, I was still quite raw, still trying to work out who I was, when I was given an opportunity to understudy on Forever, a Douglas Wright work, with amazing performers like Kilda Northcote, Shona McCullagh and Neil Ieremia. That helped me realise I needed more solid training so I went to the New Zealand School of Dance in Wellington and once I finished a year there, my first professional job saw me playing Slinky Malinki in a stage show of the book. My second job was in Sydney with Douglas Wright’s company, then I worked with Black Grace.

I’ve always been a bit of a drifter, happy-go-lucky, and going with the flow, grateful for lucky breaks and that the contemporary dance scene was quite small. Everyone knew everyone, you didn’t always have to audition and jobs were offered by word of mouth. Being male also made it easier as there were fewer guys, but there have definitely been dry spells and I’ve had a few side jobs. I cut a good hedge and because my parents ran a rest home, I learned to cook lunches on the weekends. Mum and my sisters are all really great cooks so I soaked that up, but don’t ask me to cater a dinner party.

It’s good to have practical skills, alongside the more artistic, ethereal pursuits, as that sort of work keeps you grounded. Also knowing I always had a room at home, that I’d be taken care of if I’ve not been able to afford to go flatting, that also gave me the freedom to freelance.When you’re younger, it’s also fine to sleep on people’s couches, to be a bit bohemian, but as you grow older, home comforts become more important.

For me, dance used to be all about physicality, the adrenaline, the joy, the big expressiveness of it. The sense that you could tell a story with your body, even if you weren’t telling the exact story through movement, the interaction of what you’re thinking while you’re performing that movement, I love how that becomes the story. Yet as I’ve got older, I’ve come to focus more on small things, on nuance, and I can be happy with someone just standing and not doing very much.

There have been instances where choreographers have asked me to work a certain way that feels against what I am. But that is part of dance, you’re there to be a vessel for that creator, to bring their vision to life, while also growing and discovering new things about yourself. I’m a bit of a flourisher. I can do quite big things, but sometimes, to strip it right back, that’s a huge challenge and also very rewarding. To do what other people need, I have learned that sometimes less is more. I’ve learned a lot more about myself from being stripped right back, and that has enhanced me as a performer and a collaborator.

Dance has such a profile now. It’s a lot more accepted as an occupation, but it still isn’t easy. And it’s never going to be easy and it can take a while to make things happen. I don’t have children, but if a young person tells me they want to dance, I encourage them, and I say, “Yes, do try it, see if it’s for you, but get good training and find your essence, find and keep your own voice amongst it all.” I shy away from role modelling, but I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s good to pass things on, to share what I’ve learned along the way.

I’m looking forward to the next three weeks of rehearsal, absorbing the work and thinking about it all the time. I also love swimming, going to the ocean, or for a cycle. I’m an early riser, I like getting up when it’s nice and calm, sitting and not thinking about anything, just breathing. My energy can grow quite big and big and big and sometimes it flies off, so I have to find times to be still, and that early time of day is really good for me. I’m so grateful I can sit here and look out my window on a sunny, sunny day, and see my plum tree as it starts to get full of fruit, and it waves its arms in the wind. I’m grateful to be able to notice all those things.

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