Through the 1960s and 1970s the New Zealand Ballet toured the country, introduced new ballets, and successfully presented classics. Artistic directors included Poul Gnatt (until 1962), Russell Kerr (1962–68), Bryan Ashbridge (1971), Una Kai (1973–75) and Philip Chatfield and Rowena Jackson (1975–78). Gnatt returned as a caretaker director in 1969, and a committee directed the company in 1979–80. All had to balance the production of much-loved classics with the introduction of new, sometimes challenging ballets that might not attract a large audience.
In the 1960s government support allowed the New Zealand Ballet Company’s dancers to be paid. Until then, those who wanted to be professional dancers had had to go overseas. When government bursaries for overseas study became available in the 1940s, ballet dancers were among those who received them. However, for many years most of those who went away could not come home – there was no possibility of employment.
Making ends meet
For many years the New Zealand Ballet company could not make ends meet. John Todd, arts patron, philanthropist and New Zealand Ballet trustee, remembered the ‘struggles, year after year, to survive … The threat that the New Zealand Ballet faced year after year – not just from time to time – that the money could be and indeed would be, cut off and the company would go into recess. It was never really understood or admitted that recess meant closure.’1
After United Ballet’s successful tours of Prismatic variations in 1959 and 1960, the New Zealand Ballet Trust was set up and successfully pushed for government support. The funding provided over the next two decades did not cover the company’s costs, but when combined with ticket sales and sponsorship it allowed the employment of dancers, who for the first time gained relatively secure positions.
Government funding provided a respite rather than a resolution of the company’s financial insecurity, and crises occurred regularly. An event like the fire that destroyed props, sets and costumes in 1967 was a disastrous setback, but supporters rallied for continuation of the company.
The National School of Ballet opened its doors in Wellington in 1967. It was established to ensure availability of well-trained dancers for the New Zealand Ballet. The school’s directors included Sara Neil, Russell Kerr, Dorothy Daniels, and Philip Chatfield and Rowena Jackson. They worked with a shoestring budget and no permanent base for the school.
Southern Ballet Theatre
Russell Kerr went on to direct the Christchurch-based Southern Ballet Theatre (SBT). SBT began as an extension of Lorraine Peters’s dance school, and was the product of a phenomenal effort by its community of parents and supporters. It aimed to provide performance opportunities for senior ballet students in Christchurch, employment for a core of dancers and a strong dance-in-schools programme.
SBT achieved these aims in a remarkably short time. In 1980 the company visited about 150 schools a year, provided part-time employment for a small number of dancers and had its own performance base at the Christchurch Arts Centre. It was given some financial support by the Southern Regional Arts Council. Friendly assistance came from the New Zealand Ballet, including the loan of a set for SBT’s production of Giselle, which toured to Dunedin and Invercargill.
Although SBT would remain active, it lost funding in the 1980s, and its school programme came to an end.