A Choreographer’s Life, Warts and All

A Choreographer’s Life, Warts and All|A Choreographer’s Life, Warts and All

Leanne Pooley’s intimate film portrait of Douglas Wright screens at BAM


BAM Rose Theater

30 Lafayette Ave. near Flatbush Ave.

Jul. 13 at 7 p.m.


Director Leanne Pooley chose gay New Zealand choreographer Douglas Wright as the subject of her first feature-length documentary film, in which she extracts the personal and real. “Haunting Douglas” premiered in the U.S. at New York’s Dance on Camera Festival in January, and will be screened at BAM Rose Cinema on July 13.

Wright agreed only reluctantly to cooperate with the project in order to show his work, but his sly smile reveals that he’s a performer. The intimate film portrait blends candid interviews with clips of his previously filmed choreographic works; but the best moments are the living room improvisation exclusives that are beautiful collaborations with Pooley and her camera. Private out-takes, like one of Wright signing Pooley’s lengthy legalese release form, bring the viewer uncannily close to the action. Wright also reads passages from his fictionalized autobiography, “Ghostdance,” recently published by Penguin.

Pooley doesn’t prettify the life of this accomplished artist. As a child, he was dancing before he knew what the word meant. His father frowned on this and wanted him to be playing “footy” (football). Wright darkly admits, “The open wounds he inflicted on me were probably the best thing that happened to me.” Admittedly, his father’s disapproval fueled the flames of his prodigious production of dance-theater pieces and movement creations.

“Anger is not just mine,” he observes.

In his choreographies that explore many themes, blurring the sacred and profane, Wright blends fact and fantasy to arrive at truth.

Wright for a time punished himself with drugs but later channeled that drive toward destruction into dance. Under the protective wing of lover Malcolm Ross, Wright studied the books and photos of Nijinsky. Later in New York, dancing with Paul Taylor, he had the opportunity to choreograph and set a dance on Taylor’s company. It was called “Faun Variations” after Nijinsky’s famous “Afternoon of the Faun.”

Over time, Wright began to feel “like a glove puppet” dancing for Taylor and needed not only to find his own voice, but also to return to the trees and gardens of New Zealand. Limbs, the company there he had danced with earlier, invited him back and a year later he founded his own eponymous company for whom he choreographed many outrageous pieces. A nude bestial dance in the woods celebrates human freedom and his homecoming, quoting from the opening scene of the recent art film “Nijinsky.”

As a creator of dance, Wright has antennae set for forms of hypocrisy he exposes in his Tanztheater-style choreographies. On a visit to London, he danced with Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre. He felt an affinity for Newson’s sense of anger and injustice.

Wright’s announcement that he was HIV-positive attracted a crowd of the curious for a time, but that eventually thinned to the same loyal following and level of critical interest as before.

“I knew there was a gay cancer out there I had pushed aside, but now it’s right in front of me,” Wright says of his health struggles.

With his diminished energy, he felt “like a ghost haunting,” a fact that lends a precious poignancy to the title “Haunting Douglas.” The film is a universal gem.

In some ways, the film perpetuates the myth of self-destruction in artistic creation, but Limbs dancer friend Debra McCullagh describes it this way, “He could push himself to places other people couldn’t, it didn’t matter how he was feeling or what was going on.”

Fortuitously, Pooley’s “Haunting Douglas” is to be topped off by the 34-minute, award-winning “The Cost of Living,” directed by the acclaimed DV8’s Newson.

A discussion with film historian Elliott Stein, dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer and film curator Joanna Ney wraps up the screening at BAM. by Neal Beasley of Trisha Brown Company, Jonah Bokaer from Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Jillian Pena and Christy Pessagno; a show by two graduates of James Madison University, Kelly Bartnik and Henry Hill (July 12); “Operation: Operation” (July 13), curated by Kimberly Brandt and showcasing the dance of Jesse Phillips-Fein and Jon Kinzel and the non-dance of Lisa Ferber and Hugh Ryan; “Moving Men” (July 20), curated by Arthur Aviles and featuring: Ballet Folklorico Mexicano del Refugio, Kevin Clayborn, Peter Kalivas and Christian Von Howard; and “More Dance Works-in-Progress” (July 30) featuring Jen Abrams, Victoria Libertore, Larissa Velez and Hillary Grubb.

A scene from Leanne Pooley’s “Haunting Douglas” and a photograph of choreographer and dancer Douglas Wright, the subject of the film.