Maggi Sietsma: From Ballet Dancer to Artistic Director
By Liam Klenk
Maggi Sietsma started out as a ballet dancer. Over the years, she went from being a dancer to being a choreographer, university lecturer, company manager, advisor, and artistic director. In August 2020, Maggi and I had the opportunity to meet in the South of France for an interview. In this article, discover more about her fascinating career path.
Maggi began attending ballet classes from an early age. She fell in love with this sensual as well as energetic form of expression and spent every possible minute in the dance studio.
When she was fourteen, the ballet teacher of Maggi’s suburban ballet school moved away. The teacher’s husband was transferred to another city. Soon, the school found itself without a teacher.
Maggi was the oldest student and inherited the school – with two hundred students. She also inherited two assistants and a pianist.
Maggi’s mother helped her with some of the administrative aspects. But overall, Maggi managed the daily business of the large school on her own. Since she was and looked very young, her mother insisted she wore her hair up. She also asked Maggi to apply lots of make-up to aid in making the teenage manager look at least a bit older than she was.
For Maggi, it was a profoundly formative experience to already have started choreographing and teaching at the age of fourteen. Add to this the not to be underestimated duties and responsibilities of managing the business side of the dance school, dealing with staff, coaching students through exams, etc.
In the early Seventies, Maggi joined the ensemble of first the Australian Ballet, then the London Festival Ballet. After a few years, she became a soloist before turning her attention to contemporary dance in the mid-Seventies.
In 1977, Maggi moved to France. This is also where her daughter Larissa was born, in 1979.
After choreographing her first pieces at ballet school, Maggi choreographed the first creation of her professional career for the Avignon Ballet.
It was an operetta. Translated from French to English the title was The Land of Sunshine Smiles.
This was a crucial step in Maggi’s career. A true milestone.
Then, in the late Seventies, Maggi began working for a multimedia theatre and music company called Le Chen Noire, which was also based in Avignon, France.
At around the same time, she started her own company together with several musicians and dancers. Also, around this time, until 1981, Maggi became scenic designer and choreographer for a dance company called Muance.
After four intensive years of personal and professional growth in France, Maggi returned home to Australia. It was November 1981.
As resident choreographer, she began creating for the North Queensland Ballet and Dance Society.
Maggi worked hard to lay the groundwork to completely transform this company. From a pro-am (professional-amateur) company to a fully professional dance company. This is how the company still successfully operates today. However, the name has changed to Dance North.
From 1983 to 1985, Maggi was a lecturer at Queensland University, QUT. She soon became very disillusioned as a coach and mentor since there were no companies for her students to join after graduation.
It was heartbreaking to train all those talented dancers, only to see them leave the university with very few opportunities awaiting them.
Instead of being fully immersed in the academic world, Maggi longed to get back to her profession. She was also determined to help develop solutions for the coming generations of talented dancers. Maggi resigned from the university.
Shortly after, in 1985, she went on to establish the Expressions Dance Company. A fully professional contemporary dance company. A hub of creativity, seeking talented professional dancers, and providing them with a space for growth, interaction, and visibility.
Expressions started small and turned into a million-dollar company. It toured all over the world and is still operating successfully. Recently, the name was changed to Australasian Dance Collective.
In 2005, Maggi accepted a position as Dean of Dance at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. She led the School of Dance.
During her tenure, she developed a Masters of Fine Arts in Dance together with the talented academy staff.
It was the first dance Masters degree in Hong Kong.
The development of this educational milestone included leading her team through the validation process and into its first year of operation. Furthermore, Maggi also established a new honors degree program for the academy.
To ensure visibility for her students and ensure interaction with the audience as well as with potential future employers, Maggi administered and ran a dance festival at the academy.
In 2007, the two years Maggi Sietsma spent at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts culminated in the most students ever successfully finding jobs after their graduation.
Maggi’s eyes sparkle with joy when she shares this record she is rightfully proud of to this day.
She tells me she believes her success at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts lay in the fact that she was both a practicing artist as well as a Dean at the time.
Her, by then considerable, international connections in the world of dance helped to introduce the talent to directors across the globe.
2008 saw Maggi briefly returning to Australia to do a handover of her Expressions dance company.
Throughout the years Maggi had been Dean at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, she had also still been the artistic director of Expressions. She had done all the programming from afar while another artistic director had run the day to day operations locally. Maggi’s husband Abel had stayed behind in Australia to continue managing the company.
But then, Maggi had received an offer to become the resident artistic director for the largest aquatic circus show in the world, the Dragone Entertainment show The House of Dancing Water, in Macau, China.
A position which would absorb her completely. The time had come to let Expressions in Australia go for good and hand over to a new team.
Maggi took on her new challenge at Dragone Entertainment in 2009. A position she held until 2011.
Afterwards, she went to Singapore to resuscitate the show Voyage de la Vie, which was languishing because there had been no artistic direction for a while as well as no management structure.
Maggi put a management structure and support system in place. She worked with the artists and together they breathed new life into the show, changing elements as required.
This was, of course, all done whilst at the same time respecting the original artistic vision and contacting the first director of the show regularly.
After Singapore, Maggi worked as a consultant, helping organizations to pitch for new shows. She helped them develop their pitch, budgets, etc. At the same time, she worked as artistic advisor for entertainment companies in China.
Maggi’s next full-time position came in 2015, with City of Dreams in Manila, Philippines. There, she accepted a position as Director of Entertainment Attractions and Events.
This basically required her to make sure that some form of vibrant music, dance, and singing was always happening on all casino floors and the main stage. She had to produce new acts for the main show. At the same time she had to provide entertainment for one-off events that might occur throughout the casino.
This challenging and diverse role also required Maggi to function as operations director, and to manage the Dreamplay. It was the world’s first indoor, interactive Dreamworks theme park. Managing the operations included everything that came with it, like shops, etc.
It was a huge learning curve for Maggi and a wonderful park.
Maggi remembers it to be very creative. It wasn’t a park where you found generic rides that take you for a spin. Rather, it had rooms set up where children were able to learn how to make their own cartoon animations.
Then, there were different areas, based on different Dreamworks films.
In the Shrek area, the children had to sneak into Shrek’s house without the monster catching and scaring them.
In the Kung Fu Panda area, the kids could learn Kung Fu.
A “Test Yourself” Kung Fu area challenged the youngsters to explore their limits. All while keeping them safe at the same time. They were harnessed, then had to climb tall poles and jump off.
Another attraction involved puppets… A myriad of creative fun awaited the curious explorers.
After her eventful work in Manila, Maggi went back to working as artistic director for a while (one project was with an ice skating show, for example).
It was part-time work online, advising the creative teams of each show as they were producing it. Then, at some point later in the production process, Maggi would fly in and give her advice on-site. She would lend a helping hand during the creative process, assist with casting, scriptwriting, and getting the show into operation.
Currently, like so many of us, Maggi is waiting for the Covid-19 pandemic to be over to be able to get back to work, doing what she loves.