Ask most Australians who Douglas Wright is and you’re most likely to receive a bewildered stare. Ask a Kiwi and there might be a different response. Wright is widely known under down under as a choreographer and dancer, for work with the Royal New Zealand Ballet and his own company Douglas Wright and Dancers, who arguably led the 1990s contemporary dance renaissance.
Wright should be used to being in the public eye and a documentary about his life should be no challenge, especially a successful film he endorsed. (The film Haunting Douglas has already screened at the San Francisco Film Festival, where it was a finalist for the Golden Gate Award.)
But Wright won’t see it.
I said to Leanne [Pooley, the director] right at the beginning of the project that I would be happy to do it so long as I could choose the dance clips that were included, Wright said.
The only way I could do it was to know that I didn’t have to actually then sit and watch myself.
Part of Wright’s reluctance is having to watch parts of his life he feels uncomfortable about. Wright is also famous in New Zealand for being HIV-positive (he was diagnosed in 1989) and his serostatus was back in the spotlight with the recent release of his autobiography Ghost Dance. A seminal earlier dance work Forever had also been interpreted as a work about AIDS.
Wright is reminded of New York dance critic Arlene Croce’s infamous rejection of Bill T. Jones’s HIV-themed work as victim art. Does he feel his work has ever been similarly dismissed?
I do think that sometimes some choreographers have ridden on and made so-called -˜victim art’ and been automatically applauded, he said, but he doesn’t give examples.
I have seen art that is supposedly dealing with AIDS that is excruciating, he says. I made Forever because I wanted to tell a story and I wanted to experiment with film, and I feel like that work will sort of last, because it’s not about my feelings about having HIV.
Haunting Douglas tells of a tortured artist and a roller-coaster of addiction, alcoholism and artistry. It seems the torture has not ended.
Wright explained he has spent three months at a respite centre, is on anti-depressants and he has no love life. It’s kind of pathetic in this day and age, but I feel tainted, with HIV, he said. I know it sounds melodramatic but that’s how I feel.
In the meantime, there’s always writing and reading, but very little dance. No longer performing or choreographing, Wright is working on his next book.
I don’t really like dance, he said. I only like dance when it’s great. I’m not saying everything I do is great because I know it isn’t. I’ve striven for that. But I do not enjoy a lot of dance. I prefer reading a book.
Haunting Douglas is screening at Dendy Opera Quays on Sunday 13 June at 2:35pm and
Monday 14 June at 4pm. Phone 9280 0611.