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Story: Ballet

The New Zealand Ballet was founded in 1953 by Poul Gnatt, a Danish dancer who had visited and been impressed by New Zealanders’ enthusiasm for ballet. The company was still going strong in 2013, with a cumulative total of more than 420 productions.

Story by Jennifer Shennan
Main image: Royal New Zealand Ballet tour poster, 2001

Story Summary

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Beginnings of ballet in New Zealand

In colonial society people enjoyed going to balls and dances, which sometimes included ‘art’ dance performances. Touring theatre and circus companies often had dance performances as part of the show.

In the early 20th century ballet dancers and companies visited and performed to enthusiastic audiences. Famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova visited in 1926. Inspired by seeing professional ballet, hundreds of hopeful ballerinas attended classes.

A national company

After the Second World War several overseas ballet companies toured. The 1952 visit of the Borovansky Ballet included Danish dancer Poul Gnatt. Noticing that New Zealanders loved ballet but had no national company, he returned in 1953 to set up the New Zealand Ballet.

At first based in Auckland, the company toured the country, including many small towns. Performers sometimes had to clear sheep droppings and nails off stages, and were billeted with local families. In 1959 Gnatt and Russell Kerr (who had recently returned to New Zealand after dancing with major companies in Europe) choreographed Prismatic variations.

Some dancers went to England or Australia for training and work. A number of short-lived ballet groups were set up, usually based around dance schools.

1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s the government funded the New Zealand Ballet to pay its dancers, but the company was still financially insecure.

The National School of Ballet opened in Wellington in 1967, to make sure there were trained dancers for the New Zealand Ballet. However, it had no permanent base and little money. Russell Kerr directed the Christchurch-based Southern Ballet Theatre.

1980s to 2000s

In the 1980s dance blossomed in New Zealand, including ballet. The number of choreographers grew, and many worked both in ballet and modern dance.

The New Zealand Ballet became the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) in 1984. In 1998 the government began funding the company directly, and it moved into its first permanent home, in Wellington’s St James Theatre building.

Overseas companies continued to visit, and New Zealand dancers worked overseas.

In 1982 the New Zealand Ballet School changed its name to the New Zealand School of Dance. It trained students in both ballet and contemporary dance, and many graduates joined the RNZB.

How to cite this page:

Jennifer Shennan, 'Ballet', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ballet (accessed 21 October 2017)

Story by Jennifer Shennan, published 22 Oct 2014