At the age of 8 I recruited a girl in the school playground and told her we were going to sing in the talent competition that week. I knew all the words of Do-Rei-Me and made up a short routine. The day came and Id asked my mother to be there. She was surprised to find that there was a talent show on and wondered if I might be in it. I hadn’t filled her in on any details. The curtains closed at the end a show overflowing with ballerinas, cupcakes and pink frills, while me and my friend were still waiting in the hallway. The teachers realised they had forgotten an act and the curtains parted to reveal two tiny girls in plain school skirts, standing to the sides of the stage. We sang and moved through my choreography, which involved walking (in time) to the middle of the stage and then walking out to the sides again. I projected my voice all the way to the back of the hall, filling up as much space as possible. The voice bounced off the back of the hall. It moved my mother (and many of the other mothers) to tears. That tiny little girl with the big voice. We got third place.
By the age of 12 I was a lead player in the school operetta and it made the years of primary school worthwhile. I avoided running, I liked reading books and I really liked singing & dancing. At the age of 13 I started getting really serious about performing and auditioned for all the parts in the big high school productions. To me high school was going to be about getting parts in those shows. That year I got into both the choir and the dance troupe, made the choice to be a dancer and dropped singing. A small, quiet decision that defined me for the next 30 years.
My Mother (bless!) took me off to jazz dance lessons and after nailing the step-ball-change in the first class I was passionately hooked. She also took me to theatre classes. My 80’s school years were busy with jazz! impro theatre sports! & leotards! I crimped my hair, wore leopard skin tights and desperately wanted to be Kate Bush.
At the age of 18, whilst standing on stage in a kind of musical revue show (yep – a line up of back-to-back of Andrew Lloyd Webber) I was told by a teacher that I had a nice smile, but was too chubby to be a dancer and that there were no more musical shows to audition for in Christchurch. It was true, there were no more shows to get into. I dropped dancing and started life at fine art school to study for a career as a visual artist.
By the end of Art School (age 22) I really was chubby (there was no more dancing in Christchurch…) and convinced I never wanted to be a sculptor. I spent my final year turning myself into a performance art sculpture and created shows acting out ‘myself’ as my own visual art work.
At 23 I fled down south to Dunedin to live on the dole and be an experimental artist. Those years were incredible. It was the best time ever. Wild-eyed, adult children surviving harsh winters in old Dunedin warehouses – painting, writing, dancing, singing, playing, raving, costume making, directing. The small slice of a generation of artists jamming together, playing out our fantasies in every medium. We made street art, shows, poetry jams, exhibitions, bands. We drank whisky on the rooftops, raved till dawn beneath magnificent mountains, sang to the heavens beneath a pristine and euphoric moon, watched the snows come in and watched them melt away.
Somewhere in there I learned to stilt walk on some wooden stilts with a bunch of friends. I was terrible at it and didn’t think much of it at all. But I was keen to play and our first gig saw us wandering down the main street of Dunedin. I carried a human sized papier mache hairbrush that I had made – the surreal phase. I was into making pretend colourful furniture that could maybe be costumes… what?
After the incredible, unforgettable decadent studio warehouse phase and I eventually wound up living in the tiny valley of Waitati – in my own gypsy wagon, which I was proud of and was stuffed full all that huge art work. We watched the snow come in, and watched it melt away.
Then it dawned on me. Im broke, Im cold and Im 25.
Story 2 – Dawn
“The first thing that springs to mind is a photo shoot on Wellington waterfront. The wind was crazy, and we were standing on our tall stilts quite close to the edge of the jetty. And I thought that if I fell, I had weights on my legs, and it would be hard to swim… but you had an ease about you, which made me put my big girls knickers on … and I never told you I was scared”.
Photo: Me at age 9. The trampoline in the back yard at home in Christchurch
Written: March 2018
Hi. I’m Emily.
I’m the one who started this whole Empress thing.
Over the last 21 years this small, and very sweet company has seen a lot of events. And by ‘a lot’ I mean A LOT. We have danced on stilts at thousands of events. We have danced all over Europe, all over New Zealand, all over Australia played flirtatiously with Asia and wiggled our tiny toes at the Middle East. And that’s just so far. The point is we have some stories to tell.
By ‘we’ I mean the talented physical performers who have learned, trained and danced on stilts with me all over the world. These wonderful performers have been my best friends, family, soul mates and cherished companions and are the heart of this company. This brand new BLOG is my chance to gather some of those ‘tall tales’ together and share them with you.
I have invited all the performers to come forward with any words, stories, anecdotes about their experiences. There will be no limit to time frame. The stories on this blog could be from 20 years ago or just a gig we did yesterday.
We have had a good time. And by that I mean a jaw-dropping, heart pounding, mind blowing and thrillingly amazing good time. Dancing on stilts has been incredible. I look forward to sharing as the stories unfold…
With so much love
PS: I love parties. To be more precise, I mean real parties.I don’t mean the stand-around-and-talk-and-drink-all-night parties. Everything goes wild and the place explodes into dancing. I love dancing at parties. And by that I mean I love it!! I always have and probably always will. Empress Stiltdance has been my chance to make an entire career out of dancing at parties in really, really big fancy outfits. WOW!
Story 1 – Jodie
“Death of a butterfly. Nearly.
It’s 1999, and I’m performing my very first stiltwalking gig as an Empress butterfly. Emily, Sandy and I are flapping and flying through and above an enormous dance party in Amsterdam. The crowd is insanely enthusiastic to see us. Thousands of big round eyes all watching us descend upon them. They’re jumping, dancing, frolicking, and massing beneath us.
My stilt breaks. A small bolt. I go down.
The fall is no big deal. I’ve fallen onto many outreached hands, and now I’m crowd surfing. In their ardor, the crowd works together to get me back up onto my stilts, but now I have only one effective leg to stand on. The crowd and I perform a call and response dance where I topple over in a flurry of wings, and they lever me back up again. I realise I’m won’t be able to get down to the floor. By taking their outstretched hands, I swim/climb out and over them, a bit like a sheep dog over a herd, if the dog had a five meter wingspan.
I make it out of there, and head back to the green room. I’m imagining I’ve blown it on my first gig, and I’m worried about Emily’s costume. Emily greets me when she returns, and showers me with concerned hugs, and reassures me to not worry about the costume (which was amazingly fine).
That was the first of fifteen years of Empress’ing. Flapping ethereal wings, clicking around as a giant green mantis, and floating dancing flowers. Parties in houses, airports, hotels, gardens and streets all over the world. And eighteen years of love for Emily and her amazing, sparkly, visionary brain”.
Photo: Emily and Jodie at Floriade 2010.