In 1953 renowned Danish dancer Poul Gnatt founded the New Zealand Ballet, the country’s first professional dance company. Six decades later the Royal New Zealand Ballet survived, with a cumulative repertoire of over 420 productions.
The company is unique for the extent of its national touring programme. It is welcomed in many cities and towns that remember providing billets to the first touring ensemble. There have also been a number of international tours, to Europe, the UK, US, China and Australia.
The company has earned recognition for its high standard of heritage classics, dramatic narratives, abstract and comic works, of existing and commissioned choreographies, including important new New Zealand works. Its 10 artistic directors have shown enterprise and determination dealing with often unlikely odds, reduced circumstances and limited financial support.
In a country where priority is given to sports activities, dance shares that focus on physicality. The aesthetic credo of ballet is always, unlike that of sport, to disguise the effort involved. Performers strive to convey an easy grace and assurance that all this stylised movement is a natural way to convey mood or emotion, regardless of whatever goes on backstage, in the office or at the arts council.
First New Zealand ballet?
Nobody seems quite sure when the first New Zealand ballet was performed, but Alfred Hill’s opera Tapu, staged in Auckland in 1904, included two ballets, ‘Canoe’ and ‘War cry’. The New Zealand Herald was delighted by the performance, reporting that ‘the members of chorus and ballerinas concerned gave a spectacle that could hardly be exceeded for beauty in the best theatres at Home’.1
Balls and dances were a popular recreation in early colonial society, the pioneering working life accompanied by similarly robust recreation. Dances performed included quadrilles and waltzes, polkas and galops. Interludes of ‘art’ dance performances as entertainment during balls were early seeds for home-grown dance or ballet performance. Numerous touring theatre, music and circus troupes entertained 19th-century audiences, who expected to see dance as part of their evening out.
The 20th century saw visits by London-based Danish dancer Adeline Genée in 1911, American concert dancer Maud Allan in 1914, and hugely celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1926. Tours by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo with Leon Woizikowski in 1937 and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet led by Anton Dolin in 1939 were received with great enthusiasm.
Writing about the Covent Garden Russian Ballet’s 1939 tour of New Zealand, Anton Dolin remembered that ‘in each of the towns we visited our welcome was sincere … In Wellington the enthusiasm reached a pitch that would be hard to find even in London … [but] the dancer has little or no tangible evidence of his power to leave behind. The photograph and the written word are really all.’2
The excitement of seeing professional ballet drew hundreds of would-be ballerinas to dance classes. Notable among local teachers were Daphne Knight, Cecil Hall, Kathleen Whitford and Aileen Beresford in Auckland; Isabelle Brook in Hamilton; Estelle Beere, Joseph Knowsley, Kathleen O’Brien and Dorothy Daniels in Wellington; and Lily Stevens in Dunedin.
The Royal Academy of Dancing and British Ballet Organisation curricula and examination systems were established nationally in the interwar period. A national network of competitions across a range of music and dance forms allowed pupils to gain their first performance experience. Many dance schools also put on or took part in public performances for commemorative, charitable or fundraising purposes.