One of the featured works in the Queensland Ballet’s forthcoming "Bespoke" season will be a premiere by choreographer Loughlan Prior (pictured right). This rising talent is the resident choreographer of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, so it is a bit of a surprise to discover that though he is an adopted Kiwi, he is originally from Australia. This will be the first time his work has been presented by an Australian company.
Prior was born in Melbourne. The eldest of four children, his mother wisely steered him into dance classes at the age of six to stop him “terrorising the other children in the kindergarten with his dance moves”, as he jokingly tells. He never looked back, spending all his school years at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. He moved to New Zealand to study at the NZ School of Dance and joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet as a dancer in 2010. Although an accomplished dancer in his own right, from the start he “would stay behind in the studio and experiment with movement on my own body and eventually begin to develop small works,” he explains. He is also fascinated with dance on film, and set up his own Prior Visual, a project based film collective in 2014. He began to pick up commissions, big and small, in film and on stage, and developed an impressive portfolio. “I have what I describe as ‘creative compulsion’,” he says. “I always need to be making something, documenting my ideas. Its more of a need than a want for me, and it comes in all forms, like drawing, painting, film editing, dance.”
Although he says he “struggled for many years to be taken seriously as a dance maker”, eventually his talent was recognised when he received the first Harry Haythorne Choreographic Award in 2015 for his ballet Eve. The following year he received Creative New Zealand’s Tup Lang Choreographic Award in 2016 and travelled to Toronto to stage his work Curious Alchemy at the Assemblée Internationale.
“My big break came in 2017 when Patricia Barker was appointed as the new artistic director of the RNZB. She recognised my passion very early on and discovered my talent for creating fictional worlds on stage.” She appointed him as Choreographer in Residence in 2018. The company performed his The Long and The Short of It, inspired by Sir Jon Trimmer, on its 2018 Tutus on Tour around New Zealand.
This year is his biggest to date, with the premiere of his first full-length production, Hansel and Gretel, for the RNZB in November. The ballet will be its major production of the year, with a new musical score by Claire Cowan (the first commissioned from a woman in the company’s history) and design by the “visionary” (Prior’s word) Kate Hawley.
“We have been greatly influenced by the German expressionist film noir landscape of 1920s cinema – fantasy and horror combine to create a surreal and magical world where nothing is as it seems. It has been such a pleasure expanding upon the world that the Brothers Grimm created in their 1812 short story.
“We have given a lot more time to the relationship of the family unit, and have delved further into the role of the witch, providing her with greater agency and purpose from the beginning to the end of our story. She rides around on a steam- punk bicycle selling gingerbread ice creams, luring children into a forest made of forks.”
Two days after that opens, his The Appearance of Colour will open in Brisbane. Taking inspiration from the musical compositions of John Metcalfe, and inspired by the first transmissions of colour television in the 1970s, the work explores “diverse tonal states between black and white and bold colour, presenting a continually shifting panorama of music, digital animation, puppetry and dance”.
"Bespoke" is the Queensland Ballet’s annual season devoted to experimentation and exploration with the classical form. The Appearance of Colour should be a perfect fit, blending dance with animation (by Melbourne-based animator Glynn Urquhart). “Over the past 10 years I have developed a choreographic language which aims to push the limits of speed, coordination and musicality, and these are all properties I enjoy experimenting with when developing new works,” Prior says. “My work exists within the idiom of classical ballet though I would describe my style as a sort of hybrid creature, fusing disparate ideas together to fashion a unique final product.”
Next year, Prior has a commission for “an exciting new ballet” for Singapore Dance Theatre and other stage, film and inter-arts projects, including for the Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden, in Germany. Let’s hope other Australian commissions come along quick smart, before he becomes too busy to take them up.
'Bespoke' comprises new works by Prior, Amy Hollingsworth and Lucy Guerin and is on at the Brisbane Powerhouse from November 8 to 19. More here.
'Hansel and Gretel' will premiere at The Opera House, Wellington, on November 6, and then tour New Zealand. More here.
- KAREN VAN ULZEN
This article was published in 2019. Prior is one of five choreographers featured in the RNZB 'Ballet Bites', streaming in May 12 to 29.