Limbs@40 - from screen to stage

24 September 2017

When I first moved to New Zealand nearly 15 years ago, I spent a week at the Film Archive on K Road in research mode watching all the NZ dance footage I could find.  Pouring through stacks of grainy VHS tape footage, one word kept coming up over and over again – Limbs.

And leotards.  Those kept showing up too.  Everybody was in shiny leotards.  It was the 80s afterall.

From what I could gather from the footage I watched, the Limbs style was a mash-up of Modern dance techniques with a bit of jazz and ballet sprinkled over the top.  The dancers all had an air of being trained within an inch of their lives.  They were dancing machines.  But playful, sexy, even funny dancing machines!  They were exotic without being elitist, entertaining but not pure spectacle, youthful but not naïve, attracting audiences like moths to a flame.  Limbs was adored by everyone, even if they didn’t quite know what all the dancing was about.  (Maybe it was the leotards.)

Are the works of Limbs dated?  In my opinion, yes.  But in a good way.  While the choreographic style of much of their repertoire may seem far-removed from what contemporary dance audiences are used to today, there is a whole generation of New Zealanders who when they think of contemporary dance, they immediately think of Limbs.

Will the works look the same?  No.  But that’s kind of the point.  Hip hop and other street dance styles, as well as more recent contemporary dance techniques, have had a huge influence on how dancers of today move.  Regardless of whether they are enrolled in tertiary dance programmes or not, this generation’s dancers move differently than Limbs did in the 70s and 80s.  They also look different, in terms of body shape, and are much more culturally and ethnically diverse.

To recognise this legacy 40 years on it seemed right to take that archived footage, where most of the Limbs repertoire exists, and breathe some vitality back into it through young dancers of today.  They are re-embodying the past; literally moving through an era in our history that has helped to shape contemporary dance in New Zealand as we know it (like it or not).

And yes, they’re wearing the leotards.

Carrie Rae

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