Interview with Anna Stuart - founder-director of the dance school DEVOS and resident artist at Te Atamira.
This is the first in a series of interviews with Te Atamira's resident artists - creative practitioners who either teach classes or workshops in our spaces or work in our studios. I asked Anna Stuart about her background and current career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher.
Louise Garrett, arts and cultural coordinator
LG: Tell me about how you began dancing and your early training in dance.
AS: I started dancing at age 8, studying RAD Ballet, AJDA Jazz, NZAMD Jazz and BBO Tap dance. I had completed both Major and Minor BBO Tap Solo Seals and had won my first scholarship to the NZ School of Ballet at the age of 12. My tap teacher moved away and I took over her students, renaming the studio Marlborough School of Dance at the ripe age of 15. I eventually decided to follow my university studies which was followed by OEs, work and family. It wasn’t until I moved to Queenstown in 2003 that an opportunity to dance and choreograph came up in Starry Eyed, a show created by the wonderful Margaret O’Hanlon and Nigel Hirst. Since then I have been involved in many community shows and events including Hair, Cabaret, Friendly Giant, Christmas shows, Winter Festival openings and fashion shows, Art 2 Wear, Rock and Roll Suicide, The Chain, Crazy, La Nuit D’Extraordinaire, Radio Kaos, 10 Years of Rock ‘N’Roll Theatre, Chicago, Annie, Saturday Night Fever, Mamma Mia, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and in production right now... School of Rock!
After moving to Queenstown I went back to dance training, sitting and passing over 15 advanced examinations in Jazz, Hip Hop and Contemporary Dance. Pretty much, if I had to teach it, I first had to sit it from the perspective of being a student to truly understand and teach the syllabus well.I eventually passed my APDA JazzAddict Solo Seal with Distinction at the fulfilling age of 40! And I am now a certified dance examiner for Asia PacificDance Association.
After being besieged by parents for almost 2 years, I opened Queenstown School of Dance with Lee van der Schuit in 2006. By 2019 I was tired of teaching exam syllabus and felt it held back the potential of very talented students and caused heartache for those students who were passionate about dance but were never going to be technical dancers. I felt motivated to find a way to teach more holistically and offer valuable dance classes that were inclusive to all children, both technical and not... thus the studio was rebranded to DEVOS, Dance Evolution Studios in 2021.
LG: What are some of the influences that inspired your trajectory as a dancer and choreographer?
AS: Back in my day there wasn’t an opportunity to study dance or musical arts as a tertiary education – if there had been, my life may have been quite different. We also didn’t have Contemporary Dance or Hip Hop as mainstream dance styles, so these passions didn’t actually come into my life until my thirties. Now I’m pretty addicted to all styles of Hip Hop, in particular those that fuse with Jazz and Contemporary Dance. This really inspired my ‘want’ to teach fusion style classes that didn’t define a student into one style of dance. As a small child I spent many hours in front of the TV on Sundays watching the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly: I think that’s where a lot of my stage choreography stems back from.
My background as a Les Mills’ instructor inspired me in the physicality of dance. In particular, I am inclined to teach dance with a focus on core stability, initiating all travel from the centre of the body and all movement to be performed with correct muscle engagement. I not only strive to teach all dance movements with an understanding of which muscle groups need to be initiated in a movement but also teach how to strengthen those muscles to make every jump higher, every turn tighter and every limb longer.
Right now, I am excited by Ecstatic Dance and other free movement styles of dance. I believe strongly that music and movement deepens the mind-body connection and changes the chemical balance in our brains for positive thoughts and an overall better lookout at life. Making us stronger and more resilient.
LG: You have been teaching in Queenstown since 2006 as Queenstown School of Dance, which you’ve recently renamed Dance Evolution Studios (DEVOS). What is your vision for the school’s future?
AS: I want to make a difference in a child’s life, even if a student only does one term of dance, I’d like them to walk away with the skill of being able to stop, breathe and be present, whenever they need it. I feel these skills are just as important as learning some steps, pointing your feet and smiling. At DEVOS we teach Mindful Movement as a tool to make a great dancer (a dancer that extends every limb, a dancer that is ‘in’ the dance fully, provoking emotion and taking the audience on a journey). DEVOS students not only learn mindful movement to be a better dancer, but they also walk away with tools to help navigate life and hopefully prevent future mental illness. Please note, we most definitely also teach dance steps, pointed feet and performance!
LG: How would you describe your style of teaching and what motivates the types of courses you run?
AS: To be honest, I’m pretty firm. You come to class to dance, not fluff around and talk. I give 100% energy when I teach and expect it to be reciprocated and when it mostly is... that makes my job rewarding. I will never turn up to a class without preparation, that is my personal work ethic. I also endeavour to bring out the performer in every student, to see them dance with confidence and self-worth. I love to watch students delve into their creativity: there are always surprises! As for the courses I run... I offer classes that I personally as a child/adult would have loved/love to participate in.
LG: You will be offering free mindful movement sessions inside Bailee Lobb’s installation In Bathing, Bask. How would you define ‘mindful movement’? What should participants in the sessions expect?
AS: ‘Mindful Movement’ to me is about creating a connection between the body, mind and breath. This in turn helps us to be fully present, giving us the ability to see emotions for the fleetingness of what they truly are. I personally love to use music, because of the joy it resonates but silence is also powerful. I am unsure how our thoughts and emotions will evolve in Bailee's installation but I’m excited to see and hope others will join me with the same open expectations.
LG: What is your dream project?
AS: I would love to see Dance Evolution Studios in every town in New Zealand. I believe the tools of mindfulness that DEVOS teaches, is incredibly beneficial to young people, especially in a world of constant change and disruption. Life is moving at a very fast pace and I believe we need to ‘add’ to how we teach dance to our young people. In the end my dream project is simply to see, more people dancing!
Click for more information about free mindful movement sessions with Anna at Te Atamira in May and June.