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Advice To My 22 Year Old Self: Sarah Foster-Sproull

Rehearsal image, with Joshua Faleatua and Christy Poinsettia
Sarah Foster-Sproull
Knowing your worth as a creative is your most crucial tool for success: Sarah encourages us to trust our gut and follow our imagination.


When I was 22 I was living in Wellington, dabbling in freelance contemporary dance projects and working in a clothing store to pay my rent. I was partying a lot, and having the social time of my life. I didn’t have much vision for what the future might bring for me creatively, and I didn’t really know yet how to activate my own creative voice.

Around this time I decided to participate in a dance workshop with some friends at Footnote Dance NZ. It was the first Choreolab and I got to dance all day, every day for 3 weeks. During this workshop I was asked creative questions, I felt valued as a person, and challenged physically by the teachers and my peers. I began to understand how my choices, my work, and my determination impacted my life.

I’ve made some horrendous and hilarious mistakes during my career as a dancer and choreographer. So the advice I want to share embraces some of the things I’ve learnt from being a creative, ridiculous, and fiery human being.

Everyone will have an opinion, so choose your creative confidantes wisely. A dance maker friend of mine (who I adored) once critiqued an early work of mine as very naïve. Without qualification, or discussion… just bland judgement. I was devastated because I guess I wanted to impress him, and I wanted to have a critically rigorous discussion about the work I was trying to make. From this experience, I’ve learnt who to invite in to the studio, and what questions to ask them about my work.

Have a group of trusted collaborators. Work with people who you enjoy hanging out with. Encourage and mentor their talent and creative contributions, as they nurture and support your artistic voice. Invest fiercely in their work, be flexible with them, support them to flourish both with and without you. Introduce them to people who could help their careers, open doors for them, and honour the time that you get to spend together.

Learn to negotiate. Know your worth, and even if you’re a bit frightened, ask for what you want. Negotiate your wage, and your working conditions. Negotiate expectations from funders and collaborators. Negotiate the terms of your contract. Do this respectfully, and patiently. We’re all negotiating our needs and expectations, but your needs are no less important than anyone else.

It’s ok to tell people to fuck off. I once experienced a character assassination in a dance review. The writer had a real go at me on a personal level – amongst other things, she said that I was going through a ‘quarter life crisis’. I felt that I had really let my team down. I felt embarrassed, and stupid. Then, I realised that her review doesn’t define me, and that she was being a dick. So I learnt to stand up for myself and I told her to fuck off.

Have an opinion, and use it in your art making. Indulge your imagination. Read fiercely. Research the subject matter you’re exploring with vigour. Be curious, and think creatively at every turn. Use your brain and body in seeking to understand. Go and see as much work in your artistic field as you can. Give other artists your energy, attention, and care. You are not an island.

Your body/mind/heart is powerful, and you get to say what you do with it. A dancer is not a vessel to be filled up with a choreographer’s movement. Dance making doesn’t really work like that. It’s much more collaborative than is often perceived. As a dancer, you have the ability to assert your physical needs and creative interests within any creative process. If a choreographer treats you badly, don’t work with them again. You have the power to engage, or disengage with any dance making process.

Don’t worry about people’s categorisations or perceptions of you. You are like water, sweep through the gaps of judgement on your own creative journey. Sometimes others define me as an emerging choreographer, sometimes a senior artist. It’s quite funny. But while I’m being categorised by some people, I’m out there working, figuring out creative problems, making dance with the people I love, shape-shifting, and fucking loving my life.

See Sarah’s latest work in Hemispheres a Footnote Dance New Zealand collaboration with Guangdong Modern Dance Company. The national tour starts on 15 February at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland and goes to Palmerston North, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington. More information here >

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

8 Feb 2019

The Big Idea Editor