Filming dance on fringe of St Clair

Jenny Newstead (left) and Hahna Briggs enjoyed making a dance film on St Clair beach and...
Jenny Newstead (left) and Hahna Briggs enjoyed making a dance film on St Clair beach and surrounds. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Gasp! Dance Collective is not one to shy away from new challenges such as creating a dance film in a pandemic. Director, teacher and dancer Hahna Briggs tells  Rebecca Fox about its new Fringe Festival endeavour.

One might think filming dance on one of Dunedin’s most famous beaches sounds idyllic but in reality there are challenges — dive-bombing seagulls, sunbathing seals and wandering dogs, to name a few.

Oh and the ever-changing climate does not help either, nor does a growing pandemic.

But Gasp! Dance Collective is not one to let these challenges deter it from its goal of producing its first dance film.

The collective, which formed in 2013 and is now a trust, holds inclusive dance classes for people with and without disabilities and creates performances.

It last created a Dunedin Fringe Festival work in 2018, Dance Revolution Dance.

Gasp! co-founder Hahna Briggs says they are always keen to try something new and challenge themselves and their dancers so a film seemed like a natural next step.

Given many of its dancers lived in the wider St Clair and South Dunedin area and the area’s rich history, Briggs chose it as the location for the film.

"Pre-pandemic I began researching the history of St Clair, looking at pictures and reading about it."

After sharing some ideas with other dancers and coming up with some movement ideas, Briggs took it to the inclusive classes to seek input from the wider group and the choreography was developed.

Unfortunately, just as they were scheduled to begin filming, Covid-19 hit and it had to be cancelled.

So they shelved the plans until last summer as they were still keen to film at St Clair.

However, they had to amend their plans having run out of time and funding to do what they originally hoped to.

They decided to create seven small group dances with dancers of mixed abilities using different types of movement and different ideas as their base focused on the location.

"Each leader of the group chose the exact location and the type of movement."

Members of Gasp! get their groove on at St Clair during filming. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Members of Gasp! get their groove on at St Clair during filming. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Fellow class leader Jenny Newstead created a solo based on the faults and shifting plates that formed the land of St Clair while dancers Maddie Bolt, Kara Brash, Sarah Chatfield, Alysha Canning, Gabriel Freeman, Tegan Howard, David King, Saira Lal and Hannah Rouse took part in the group pieces.

Briggs says people out and about in the area while they were filming were very positive.

"We had some spontaneous audiences and various reactions. We were able to draw inspiration from what was happening around us."

The film Promenade, A Moving History of St Clair Beach has been designed as a piece that can be watched whole or in individual bites.

They chose the title of the film Promenade to reflect St Clair’s beach history as a popular place to gather, walk and share food even today.

"I think there is a real sense of community in this area."

Briggs says before colonisation, the St Clair sandhills were part of early Maori food foraging expeditions and the early swamplands of St Clair, known as "The Flat" was a hunting ground for eels, pukeko, ducks and weka.

Since the 1800s St Clair esplanade has been popular for promenading.

"People dressed in their best finery to promenade and socialise at the guest houses, shops, tearooms, ice-cream parlours and the pavilion.

"We are encouraging audience members to dress in their Promenading finest, however they wish to interpret this theme, for the Premiere screening of the film."

Briggs admits it has taken some trial and error to get the film together. Her partner, Gala Hesson, has been doing the filming and editing.

"It’s been a bit of learning as you go and being flexible."

Concepts like continuity were hard to grasp by some and dealing with different lighting levels and temperatures during the two days of filming was challenging.

As were the wandering dogs and seagulls keen to be in shot and having to avoid getting too close to a seal and her pups.

"We’ve ended up with a lot of footage which we’re having to edit down as we don’t want a super-long film but it’s really hard with so much raw material."

Dancing on St Clair beach for a film are (from left) Tegan Howard, Hahna Briggs, Alysha Canning,...
Dancing on St Clair beach for a film are (from left) Tegan Howard, Hahna Briggs, Alysha Canning, David King. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Musician Matthew Sanson has also created an original soundtrack for the film based on the dances.

"It’s playful and beachy. One track has a real carnival feel. He’s worked with the way dancers move in each different dance."

Despite that it had been a fun process enjoyed by all the dancers, she says.

"It’s a new experience and it develops dance skills and performance skills for me and the dancers."

It enabled some dancers to take on more leadership roles and responsibility and learn more about research or "backstage" roles.

"We have some dancers who are really keen to do as much as possible and love performing."

It also helps build confidence as performing in front of people can be scary, even for Briggs.

"It also builds a sense of ownership as we work with dancers so they can contribute to the dance and what we have created. They can be proud of what they’ve done."

The classes and film have also been important to Briggs who has a 4-month-old child.

"It’s nice to do something outside of parenting."

As a new parent she finds the classes are important to her mental health and wellbeing as well as her ability to stay in touch with her body and be creative.

By showing the film at the festival live and online she hoped it will showcase the talent and creativity of the dancers.

"We hope it will reach a wider audience around the world and show off Dunedin and its beauty, too."


Promenade, Emersons Festival Theatre, March 19-27

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