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Perpetual motion

Good luck finding a flaw in Lucy Marinkovich. She talks to Sarah Lang about dancing to your death, creative collaboration, and vomiting at good news.

On 14 July 1518, Frau Troffea of Strasbourg (on the border of France and Germany) walked into the street and began to dance ferociously and without apparent enjoyment. She continued nonstop for six days until her shoes were soaked with blood. A week later, 34 people were dancing next to her in the same manic, trance-like way. Over that blazingly hot month, around 400 Strasbourg residents were afflicted, until they suddenly ‘came to’. Some danced themselves to death from dehydration, or heatstroke-induced heart attacks or strokes.

This is a true story. It’s well documented in the town’s records, and in John Waller’s 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time To Die. Competing theories regarding the ‘dancing plague’ have been floated, but it’s now believed to be an incident of mass ‘psychogenic illness’: physical disease arising from emotional or mental stressors – such as the starvation-level poverty and disease stalking 16th-century Strasbourg.

This incident is the basis of Lucy Marinkovich’s dance work-in-progress Strasbourg 1518. ‘The dance plague is horrific and sad, but there’s also something oddly inspiring about it − and the idea of dance as protest,’ Lucy says. The bubbly, unfairly beautiful 29-year-old is the founder, artistic director, choreographer and lead dancer of multi-disciplinary performance collective Borderline Arts Ensemble. She’s currently developing Strasbourg 1518 with saxophonist/composer Lucien Johnson (her fiancé), four other regular collaborators, and dancer Michael Parmenter. They’ll perform the work in March 2020, because the next nine months are spoken for (no, Lucy’s not pregnant).

Lucy Marinkovich.

Lucy and Lucien have been jointly awarded the 2019 Harriet Friedlander Residency, established by the late arts patron, and run by a trust alongside the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. It allows the couple to live in New York for as long as $100,000 lasts. They leave this month (April 2019) and plan to return in January 2020.

The biennial residency, which you can’t apply for, is normally bestowed on one artist. But Simon Bowden from the Arts Foundation says a joint residency makes sense. ‘There’s already [financial] provision for a partner, and either could have been selected alone on their own merits.’ When Simon phoned Lucy with the news, she’d just finished MC-ing a school dance performance in Christchurch as the Royal NZ Ballet’s dance educator. ‘My response was so uncool. I cried then threw up.’

This unusual residency has no specific objectives. ‘It’s mainly to experience New York. What we do is up to us.’ Of course, Lucy wants to connect with certain dance companies and theatres. She’d also like to train further as an instructor for the New York-based, global ‘Dance for PD’ (Parkinson’s Disease) initiative, after she participated in the inaugural New Zealand training workshop last year. (These classes have physical, emotional and social benefits for Parkinson’s sufferers.)

While they’re away, Lucien and Lucy will rent out their flat in an art-deco building in Mt Victoria, shared with Russian Blue cat Kandinsky. The couple met six years ago. ‘I was finally out and about after a break-up. I was tired of being sad – it’s not my natural state.’ After her friend bailed on the launch of Eleanor Catton’s book The Luminaries, Lucy went alone, and met Lucien for the first time. When Lucy left Unity Books, he caught up to her and asked her out. ‘I said “No, I’ve just been broken up with” and he said “Just as friends?” I said “Oh, alright!”’ Lucy’s ‘on the fence’ about children. The couple love cooking for friends, and work late. ‘We’re night owls not morning people.’ When I visit at 9.30am, Lucy has set her alarm to get up on time, as she does to catch morning flights.

Photo by Stephen A’Court.

She’s visited close to 20 countries to research, dance, choreograph and teach, particularly in Southeast Asia. In February she and three other New Zealanders travelled to Taiwan and Japan through the Creative NZ Asia Artform [Research and Exchange] Fund, to begin developing collaborative projects with artists in Asia.

Lucy is a self-confessed Type-A perfectionist. ‘I know exactly what I want my work, and even my funding applications, to be like. If you can make that happen, why wouldn’t you?’ It certainly happened in 2017, when Lucy choreographed and danced in Borderline’s award-winning surrealist production Lobsters.

She began dancing aged five, attending ballet classes taught by Deirdre Tarrant. Lucy took up contemporary dance in her early teens, and after high school trained at the NZ School of Dance. Then she joined Deirdre’s contemporary-dance troupe Footnote, performing nationally and internationally (while doing an extramural B.A. in English Literature).

A dance career has an expiry date, though Lucy wants to dance into her 50s. But choreography always appealed. ‘I was interested in the choreographic process, and Deirdre encouraged me to create a work for Footnote.’ Commissions for other companies followed. ‘As a dancer you do work choreographically creating movement – so in a way, you’re halfway there.’

How important is collaboration? ‘Collaboration is my work!’ Lucy’s regular Borderline collaborators – Lucien (composer/musician), Emmanuel Reynaud and Xin Ji (dancers), Jeremy Brick (filmmaker), and Philip Merry (photographer) – are part of the creative process at different stages. Other collaborators participate in specific projects.

When Lucy choreographs, the dancers ‘have complete agency to say, do, what they want – to contribute ideas and suggestions. I’ll give a ‘‘provocation’’ or task – for one work, I came up with a list of the most famous romantic films of all time. The dancers created a physical interpretation of each film – almost like charades. I’ll think ‘‘this bit has potential’’ and sometimes say ‘‘Sorry, that’s a bad idea’’. I don’t think anything gets lost in the process of collaboration. If I was alone, I’d chase myself in circles, whereas collaboration compels me to make decisions.’

Collaborating with Lucien makes sense. ‘It’s more often me bringing Lucien into my projects than him bringing his dancer-choreographer girlfriend into his jazz work, though we’re developing Strasbourg 1518 together. He’s the biggest creative influence in my life. There’s no division between work and life for us. We talk about films, politics, literature, artists, music.’ Lucy also knits for the Red Cross.

Circa Theatre 2018 marketing image.
Photo by Stephen A’Court. Makeup by Amy McLennan – Makeup Artist. Design by Rose J Miller Mooma.

I’m trying hard to find a flaw in Lucy. ‘Extreme vanity,’ she says, deadpan. She does ’fess up to a guilty pleasure that I share. ‘Some super intelligent, fiercely feminist friends and I watch The Bachelor [U.S version]. My family is obsessed with sport and they’ll yell at the TV. The Bachelor is my version of that.’

She also loves baking. ‘My family’s obsessed with food.’ Her dad Zukov, of Croatian descent, was general manager of Moore Wilson’s for many years, and he and wife Lynsey (a former airline booking agent) often help out at daughter Kate’s Mt Vic bakery, Tomboy. They’re a good-looking family. Lucy does occasional modelling, including for WETA workshop sculptures and, most recently, as the Medusa-like covergirl of Circa’s 2018 catalogue. Her contracts and commissions pay the bills – just. ‘I’m doing well getting work, but when the jobs end, the money stops. But now we get to soak up New York! I still can’t quite believe it.’

Strasbourg 1518 will be performed in March as part of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts.

First published Capital issue 60
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