In the 19th and early 20th centuries in New Zealand, opportunities to dance and act were abundant. Amateur, semi-professional and professional theatre and dance were widely attended and enjoyed, and provided a living for some of those involved.
Dancers and actors were trained by private teachers or on the job. After taking classes and appearing in local amateur productions, some joined stock or touring companies. Travelling overseas for further training, usually to Britain, was the standard route to a professional career.
From the 19th century onwards, private tutors provided classes in elocution (speech) and stage craft for would-be actors. From the 1920s achievement was assessed using the Trinity College London examination system.
Amateur theatre groups (which spread through New Zealand in the 1920s) and university drama clubs provided opportunities to perform. From there, actors could move into stock companies, which required them to specialise in a type of role, such as juvenile, old man or ingénue. Touring productions relied on the stock companies to fill less important roles.
A New Zealand branch of the British Drama League was set up in 1931 and in the 1940s New Zealand theatre expanded. The league ran summer schools and courses, with guest tutors brought in from overseas. New companies and provincial drama groups were formed in the decades after the Second World War, providing training and performance opportunities.
University drama clubs were another source of theatre training. Canterbury College Drama Society was set up in 1921 and transformed itself into a repertory company in 1928. A later Canterbury drama club, under the direction of crime novelist Ngaio Marsh, achieved professional standards.
In 1970 the New Zealand Drama School opened its doors in Wellington. In 1989 the Drama School changed its name to Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School and adopted a bicultural approach to the teaching of drama. In 1997, the school moved into a purpose-built permanent home, which it shared with the New Zealand School of Dance. In the 2000s theatre and drama courses were available at most New Zealand universities, with Victoria University doing some collaborative teaching with Toi Whakaari.
Many teachers of dance ran their own schools, often employing senior students as assistants; in country districts, a dance teacher often held classes in several small towns. Dance-teacher training used an informal apprenticeship system, supplemented by the British-based Royal Academy of Dance’s teaching certificate (first offered in the 1930s). The types of dance taught varied – ballet, tap, Scottish reels, ballroom dance and flamenco might all be taught at the same dance school. Private schools remained an important source of senior-level dance training in the 2000s.
Modern dance was an exception to the private teaching system. It was taught at the University of Otago’s School of Physical Education from the 1940s, and at the national ballet school from the late 1970s, as well as by a small number of private teachers.
The National School of Ballet was set up in 1967 to ensure the availability of well-trained dancers for the New Zealand Ballet. Although government-funded, the school had a shoestring budget and held classes in a former cinema and a church hall.
By the time the school changed its name to the New Zealand School of Dance in 1982 it offered training in classical ballet and contemporary dance. In 1998 it gained a permanent home in Wellington, complete with purpose-built studios and a theatre.
Dance education expansion, 1990s
From the late 1980s the provision of tertiary-level dance education, including Māori and Pacific dance, surged. Dance education in Auckland was particularly strong. The private Auckland Performing Arts School offered diplomas in dance. In 1994 Unitec took over the school and continued to develop its dance component. In the mid-1990s the University of Auckland set up a dance studies programme. Private schools were set up, notably The Palace (which produced several award-winning breakdance crews).