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by Jennifer Shennan

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.

Beginnings of ballet in New Zealand

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

19th-century beginnings

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.

20th-century developments

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.

Ephemeral art

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

Local teachers

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.


A national company emerges

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.

    • Quoted in Tara Jahn-Werner, Dance: the illustrated history of dance in New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2008, p.129. Back

Building a foundation, 1960s and 1970s

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.

Financial support

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.

Ballet school

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.

    • Quoted in Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, eds. The Royal New Zealand ballet at sixty. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013, p. 285. Back

Expansion and security, 1980s to 2000s

The 1980s saw a blossoming of dance in New Zealand, and ballet shared in that. The increasing number and confidence of New Zealand choreographers, including Gray Veredon, Eric Languet, Patricia Rianne, Douglas Wright and Mary-Jane O’Reilly, was a critical element in the development of an indigenous dance voice. Many of them worked across the ballet and modern-dance divide.

A royal accolade

The New Zealand Ballet became the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1984. The new title recognised the standing of the company, its longevity and its contribution to New Zealand’s artistic life.

From 1981 Harry Haythorne’s long and fruitful term as artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet included touring to Australia and China. His commissioning of new works strengthened New Zealand choreography, and his commitment to touring beyond the main centres maintained a valuable tradition.

Other artistic directors included Ashley Killar (1992–95), Matz Skoog (1996–2000), Gary Harris (2001–11), and Ethan Stiefel (2012–). There were a number of firsts in the period, including an adventurous project, Ihi frENZy (2001), which had Māori kapa haka group Te Matarae i Orehu double-billed with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), with choreography by Mark Baldwin to the music of Split Enz.

Financial security and a permanent home

The RNZB continued to suffer debilitating financial crises in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998 the government agreed to provide direct funding (so a substantial portion of income was predictable) and forgive debts owed by the company. In the 2000s government funding covered about 40% of the RNZB’s costs, with the rest provided by ticket sales, grants from gaming trusts and sponsorship.

In 1998 the company moved into the St James Theatre building in Wellington, its first permanent home.

Filming Giselle

New Zealand Ballet founder Poul Gnatt had included an excerpt from the ballet Giselle in the company’s first months. Sixty years later, in 2013, a feature film of the company’s recent production of Giselle, directed by Toa Fraser, premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival and was released internationally. It was the first full-length film of an RNZB production.

International influences

A number of prominent dance companies visited New Zealand, principally under the auspices of the International Arts Festival from its founding in 1986. New Zealand dancers continued to travel overseas to work with companies in Europe and North America, and on their return introduced new influences.


In the early 1980s a New Zealand Arts Council report estimated that there were a few hundred teachers of ballet scattered across the country. Thirty years later there were approximately 500 ballet teachers. In the early 1980s the Italian Cecchetti Society and Russian Imperial Society systems were taught (although the Royal Academy of Dance and British Ballet Organisation systems remained dominant). In the 2010s the RAD and International Teachers of Dance syllabi were widely taught.

New Zealand School of Dance

The New Zealand Ballet School changed its name to the New Zealand School of Dance in 1982. It offered training in classical ballet or contemporary dance; many of their graduates joined the RNZB while others went overseas to work. Although the school remained a key dance institution, graduates of several private schools, including those directed by Sherilyn Kennedy and Carl Myers, also went on to dance with the RNZB.

In 1998 the School gained a permanent home in Wellington’s Winter Show Buildings, complete with purpose-built studios and theatre.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jennifer Shennan, 'Ballet', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Jennifer Shennan, published 22 October 2014