Story: Ballet

Page 2. A national company emerges

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After the Second World War, visits by Bodenwieser Ballet in 1947, Ballet Rambert in 1949 and the Australian National Ballet in 1952 rebuilt audience interest. The Australian-based Borovansky Ballet gained a popular following during its numerous return tours during the 1940s and 1950s. From the late 1940s there were calls for a New Zealand ballet company to be established.

On tour with the Borovansky Ballet in 1952 was a Danish dancer of considerable reputation, Poul Gnatt. He was struck by the fact that New Zealand audiences were so enthusiastic about ballet yet there was no national company. The following year he returned to form the New Zealand Ballet.

Ballet’s queen

Margot Fonteyn, prima ballerina assoluta with the British Royal Ballet, arrived in New Zealand in 1959 to a delighted and enthusiastic welcome. Balletomanes queued for three days to get tickets, and after the final performance in Wellington a car was driven into the theatre to collect her, driving out at a snail’s pace through the cheering crowd.

The New Zealand Ballet

Gnatt was offered studio space in Auckland at the well-established Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet, where their Auckland Repertory Ballet ensemble had previously been based. The New Zealand Ballet’s first seasons were given in 1953 at the Playhouse, later the Mercury Theatre, off Karangahape Road, and His Majesty’s Theatre in Queen Street. Soon, with support from the government-funded Community Arts Service (CAS), Gnatt and his troupe undertook tours to a number of smaller cities and rural regions. The company was later toured by the Wellington, Canterbury and Otago branches of the CAS.

The New Zealand Ballet went to Te Kūiti, Putaruru, Mangakino, Te Puke and other small and not-so-small towns. They performed in any available space, clearing their sometimes makeshift stage and backstage area of nails, sheep droppings or old furniture. Performers were billeted with local families, and on occasion entertained in the local pub after closing time.

The wide-reaching national touring network that the company established in this period was maintained in the 2000s.

United Ballet and Prismatic variations

Russell Kerr had returned to New Zealand in 1957 after dancing with major ballet companies in the UK and Europe. He and Gnatt invited other leading talents who had danced overseas and returned to New Zealand to join forces in the United Ballet in 1959.

Gnatt, Kerr and his wife June Kerr, Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield, Sara Neil and Walter Trevor attracted great acclaim in Auckland and Wellington seasons. Prismatic variations, jointly choreographed by Gnatt and Kerr in 1959, was an important work of this period.

Dancers and teachers

Many of these performers were among the young New Zealand dancers of outstanding promise who travelled abroad for further training and career opportunities. Rowena Jackson, brothers Alexander and Garry Grant, Bryan Ashbridge, Yvonne Cartier, Peggy Sager, Sara Neil, Anne Rowse and Russell Kerr were among those who went to England or Australia.

Getting to Sadler’s Wells

Attending Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in London was the pinnacle for aspiring ballerinas, but New Zealand’s first scholarship winner almost didn’t get there. Rowena Jackson won her scholarship in 1941, but the Second World War prevented her from going. Five years later, nearly 20 years old and ready to become a photographer instead, Jackson finally made it. She went on to become a principal dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet).

There was a marked expansion of dance teaching after the Second World War. Notable teachers included Beryl Nettleton and Bettina Edwards in Auckland, Jean Horne and Galina Wassiliewa in Wellington, Joan Irvine in Dannevirke and Irina Kalnins in Christchurch.

Other dance groups

A number of non-professional and short-lived groups, usually based on dance schools, were formed. The Repertory Ballet Theatre, set up by the Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet, toured Waikato, Northland and Taranaki between 1946 and 1949. Like the New Zealand Ballet, it was assisted by the CAS. Kalnins Ballet Theatre, established by Irina Kalnins in the late 1940s, performed in Christchurch and Wellington.

Exam rejection

Lithuanian émigrée Galina Wassiliewa, trained in the Russian Legat tradition, didn’t see the point of exams – ‘Look, if you’re a ballet dancer and go to an audition, no one will ask to see your certificate. They will tell you: Dance! Exams are such a lottery; good ones fail and bad ones pass.’1 But New Zealand’s small ballet world liked to follow Britain’s example: the Royal Academy of Dancing’s examinations were the standard against which many local dancers were assessed.

In the 1950s the Auckland Caledonian Society set up the Auckland Ballet Theatre to provide a core of dancers to work with local opera and dance productions and overseas companies touring New Zealand. The dance school tradition of annual performances was also maintained. Students at Wassilewa’s Russian School of Ballet, for example, performed in Wellington’s opera house (accompanied by a full orchestra) in the 1950s. In 1960 the Wellington City Ballet was set up to perform Children of the mist, one of the first ballets to be locally choreographed, designed and scored.

Ballet societies

Auckland’s Ballet Appreciation Club, set up in 1953 and later known as Les Archives de la Danse, was led by ballet enthusiast Keith Woods. He documented New Zealand ballet, and in particular Gnatt’s endeavours, in photograph, film and the publication En Avant. Balletomanes (as ballet enthusiasts are sometimes known) in other cities also grouped together.

  1. Quoted in Tara Jahn-Werner, Dance: the illustrated history of dance in New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2008, p.129. Back
How to cite this page:

Jennifer Shennan, 'Ballet - A national company emerges', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Jennifer Shennan, published 22 Oct 2014