Antartica: The First Dance choreographer and director Corey Baker on how he shot dance at -16°C

Corey Baker is an award-winning choreographer from New Zealand who has just completed an ambitious filmmaking project that saw him fly to Antartica to film Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Madeleine Graham for the first ever short dance film in the region. Here he talks to Mandy News about his career to date and how Antartica: The First Dance – which premieres on Earth Day, April 22 on Random Acts for Channel 4 – came together.

19th April 2018
/ By Andrew Wooding

Antartica: The First Dance by Corey Baker JACOBBRYANT

Corey, tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from and how you became interested in choreography? Also, how did you go about setting up your own production company?
I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand originally and I came from a very low-economic family. As a result, the only theatre, entertainment or live performance I was ever exposed to was the free kind, like busking and the free magic shows in the mall during school holidays. When I was seven, I was lucky enough to go to this massive free show put on by a theatre company at Hagley Park. I vividly remember it, how I was transfixed by the magic and heightened reality of it and standing amongst a very diverse community, enjoying the performance. My mother saw the effect it had on me and she took me back to that park every single day. 

After a week of going to that show, I had that moment of realisation that I now knew what world I wanted to be a part of. That was a real sticking point for me. Ever since, I have been a part of that world in many ways. 

I first started by getting into some acting classes, and then to musical theatre which taught me how to tap dance by the time I was 10 or 11. Then, by the grace of circumstance, it led to my high school English teacher advising me to sign up for ballet to improve my tap dancing skills; she actually ran a ballet school parallel to teaching us English. 

I ended up doing ballet and, before I knew it, I had quit school at 15 and went into ballet training full-time. I didn’t necessarily set out to be a ballet dancer but it was the natural organic pathway into this magical world that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. I moved to Australia when I was 16 to finish my full-time training as a ballet dancer, then I moved to Switzerland where I signed my first ballet contract when I was 17 and a half years old. I was in Switzerland for a couple of years and I was lucky enough to dance with some of the world’s best choreographers. 

I learnt a lot from being a part of so many choreographer’s creative processes and learning that there are no set rules – if you’ve got a vision, then you do whatever you need to do to bring it to life. There is no real pattern to that, other than creative people trying to be creative.

I was lucky that I was at a big company with loads of studios, lots of free time and lots of dancers. I was able to get together dancers and my friends from the orchestra, and just jam, subsequently doing R&D for free, which sadly people pay a lot of money to try and do now. So I was practicing being a choreographer – my process, how I communicate with dancers – and I didn’t even know I was doing it at the time.

Eventually, I moved to London. I had to have my foot operated on, which meant I was no longer a full-time classic dancer and, by that point, I actually already realised that I didn’t really fit into the classic ballet world, so I got a job at BalletBoyz. That was a great eye-opener to more accessible theatre and dance. It also opened the door to more opportunities. 

I did a bit of work for Kneehigh Theatre Company and other prestigious choreographers and companies, while I kept developing my own craft, entering the platforms wherever I could. The money that I saved up from dancing during the week would pay to get my dancer friends to a rented school hall and creating stuff together. I would also sometimes go and teach some free workshops at the school. Those little things were really important for me in terms of development. It’s really hard to get these opportunities and it forced me to think outside of the box.

I did an outdoor performance with a choreographer named Marc Brew and that was the first time that everything was brought back home; I re-connected with the seven-year-old me as I was doing what I always wanted to do: performing outdoors, with a lot of people. It was fun and engaging. I could see all the different people from various backgrounds reacting to the performance, and it felt inclusive, and really human and fun. So I decided I wanted to do more interesting things like that and position dance in new and exciting ways. I toured with my comical solo for three years, following which, in 2010, I set up my company. That solo show proved to me that there was an appetite and a market for engaging, inclusive dance, that anyone can watch. So I ended up creating Dance Outdoors and to date we have 10 outdoor shows.

The whole point for me is taking dance to people. When I put dance out in different locations, be it a rugby field or a street, then it’s in a place that makes people feel less intimidated by this art form; it makes dance more approachable.

In recent years, I’ve been trying to extend that even further by documenting dance as visual content and sharing it via film, TV and social media. I’m currently doing a TV show where I create dance in random and extreme places you wouldn’t expect, like Antarctica, and there’s a documentary that follows how we did it. As a choreographer, I’m lucky that I still get to work very closely with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In theatre, you create a world in a highly-controlled environment; you design and fix every element of it. With film, you can almost create even more magic by adding effects, playing around with timelines, etc. As a choreographer, it’s really interesting for me to work across all those fields and see how they help each other. 

I think the future of choreography should be split between film, TV and theatre because that’s where the audience lies. A lot of people get most of their content from their phones and on social media nowadays so if we don’t position dance there, then where is the future for dance?

How did the extreme location TV job come about? When you were out there, what challenges arose?
On a personal level, I’ve always loved Antarctica and seen it as a real-life fairy tale. Perhaps also something to do with Christchurch, where I’m from, being the gateway city to Antarctica; maybe it was in my subconscious a little more than for most people. 

As an artist too, I think there is something fascinating about Antarctica as a place that isn’t touched by mankind. People who go there, only do so to preserve, reserve and study. I try to live a very green life and I’m very concerned about the harsh realities of climate change. Therefore, putting that passion with my desire, my interest in Antarctica and my ethos of creating dance in unusual locations made it feel like a tangible project.

It stayed in the back of my head for years and years, until it got to the point where I was in a position to make it happen. I developed it further and then pitched it to Antarctica New Zealand, and they thought it was absolutely crazy but wanted to come on board nonetheless. It was a two-year-long process to get it off the ground, putting together the money and attracting project partners.

There were obviously a lot of challenges from just a practical point of view; health & safety to logistics.

I’ve never pitched an idea that has been plain simple and it’s always very hard to have that first conversation. You get a lot of eye-rolls and people saying "No", but you have to push past that and, if you believe in your vision, you keep going until you can make it happen.

Amazing! What prep could you do for the project? Was it done all in one trip?
We hired a couple of ice-skating rinks and danced on them for a few days, just so we could get used to dancing on ice. We went into a snow room and we did a lot of hiking, too. Maddy, the dancer I took from Royal New Zealand Ballet, hadn’t actually been camping before, so the first day we landed in Antarctica we all did survival training: we got outdoors and slept in tents in the snow, learning how to survive if we got caught out there by ourselves. 

Everything about that place and environment doesn’t want you to create dance there. There was a lot to overcome on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

How long actually was the filming process?
We were supposed to be there for 15 days but we were delayed for three and only ended up there for 12 in the end. After the two days of training at the beginning, we only did 10 days of filming. 

Bearing in mind that we were not only doing the four and a half minute dance film, which will be out on Sunday 22 April, but also the 60-minute feature documentary to go along with it. So we didn’t sleep much!

Having directed the film too, how was that process? Did you have to swap between choreography and directing a lot?
I very much see my job as more of a director than a choreographer anyway. For me, they do go hand in hand. As choreographers we’re directing content, directing people, directing our collaborators and directing the vision of something artistic – just like a film and TV director would. 

It just so happens that there are a lot of different lingos, protocols and processes specifically to do with the filming part of it. I went to film school last year to do a short course because I knew I wanted to take the filming more seriously and get used to the language, communication and equipment as well as build confidence.

What can people expect from the film or the documentary?
The dance film is called Antartica: The First Dance and will be out on April 22nd on Channel 4 as a part of Earth Day. It’s a film that celebrates Antarctica. I think seeing a dancer perform in the most incredible landscape is very beautiful and quite breath-taking. It’s all about celebrating that space as it could be gone very soon. We echo a few messages about that throughout the film in a metaphorical way and at the end we’ve actually included a hard fact that tells you the scope of climate change impact we’re experiencing. 

But this is not a film just for avid activists: it’s actually aimed to reach all of us. The film leaves you with questions about climate change and it’s up to you to make the decision to learn more about it. The documentary gives an insight into our team’s own learning process, too. 

I’m not a climate change scientist and I had to learn a lot to be able to make this and a lot of that is captured on film. It also demystifies the process of creating dance: I take it very seriously but I equally want to make it accessible for people and engage with them. The documentary is great but it’s not out for a little while yet. The dance film needs to watched first!

What advice would you give to an aspiring dancer who wants to follow in your footsteps? And what are the realities of setting up your own choreography company?
If there is anyone who is silly enough to dance in my footsteps then I’d say you really have to want to do it and not just the idea of it. They’re really two different things. I truthfully didn’t want to be a dancer but wanted the idea of being a dancer. 

What I definitely wanted to do was just create things no matter what it was. That’s what gets me out of bed: getting my notepad, coming up with an idea and then making it happen. I’d happily do that for the rest of my life. That’s what allows me to write a funding application at 3am, being in the edit suite 'til 4am and being on set till 5am.

It’s hard work at the beginning, fighting to get to that point where you’re actually making stuff happen and it’s just as hard when you’re making it. I think having a desire stronger than your own career motivations is helpful too. I’m very passionate about engaging people with dance in a more accessible way and also caring for the planet, and these both ground me a lot of the time. These things are different tools to motivate you to keep going. Additionally, I have a great support network who are critical and loving at the same time. 

With setting up your own business, don’t do it unless you really, really want to do it.

At a workshop I attended, Danny Boyle said to us: “The best thing you can do is keep your child-like imagination”. I love that as it’s so true. Being child-like allows you to be creative and be motivated enough to follow your vision.

With my business, we turned over £1million ($1,422,941) two years ago when we did the rugby World Cup project. Yes, I had to learn about tax, budgets, risk assessments, health & safety and HR but Google is a wonderful thing. Besides, if you’re really driven to fulfil your vision and do what you believe in, then you’ll move mountains. 

Some qualities are required: you have to be motivated, very tenacious, a nice person and you have to be good at your craft but literally anyone can do it, if they put they mind to it!

Antartica: The First Dance premieres on Random Acts for Channel 4 this Sunday (April 22).