Story: Contemporary dance

Page 2. New Zealand practitioners, mid-20th century

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While dance techniques and philosophies were coming to New Zealand from elsewhere, New Zealanders were travelling to acquire dance knowledge.

Shona Dunlop MacTavish

Dunedin-born Shona Dunlop (later Dunlop MacTavish) went to Europe in 1935, aged 15. At the studio of Gertrud Bodenwieser in Vienna she was taught expressive dance combining the discipline of ballet with Rudolf Laban’s movement theories and the postural, gestural and rhythmic ideas of the day. In 1938 Dunlop joined Bodenwieser’s company, which toured to New Zealand in 1947 and 1950. In 1956 she settled in Dunedin, opening a school in 1958 and setting up Dunedin Dance Theatre in the 1960s; she continued to teach and choreograph in the 2000s.

Rona Bailey

Rona Bailey (originally Rona Stephenson) went to the United States in 1937 to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Crossing the country the following year, she enrolled in the physical education programme at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York City. At Barnard she was taught by modern dance’s most influential personalities, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Louis Horst, Charles Weidman and the dance critic of the New York Times, John Martin. While in New York Bailey attended performances of works by Graham and Humphrey that sparked her own creative instincts.

Modern dance and physical education

On her return to New Zealand in 1939, Bailey was employed as a physical welfare officer for the Department of Internal Affairs. Her first ‘posting’ was in the Waikato, where she met Philip Smithells. Born in England, Smithells moved to New Zealand in 1939 to take up the position of superintendent of physical education. He brought progressive ideas about physical education, not least a belief in the centrality of dance to human wellbeing. While not a dancer, he valued dance as an essential element of society.

Odd man out

Phillip Smithells’s interest in modern dance made him an oddity among men in New Zealand. European physical education might include dance, but in New Zealand it was more likely to include ‘drill’ – regimented movement based on military training, done by large groups. Rona Bailey remembered Smithells having ‘a really tough time in relation to the other men [involved in physical education]. They saw him as a poofter; someone interested in dance, theatre, the arts. He had a very tough time when he first came.’1

New Dance Group

The Wellington-based New Dance Group, founded in 1945 by Bailey and Smithells, along with Smithells’s wife, Olive, and Czech refugee Edith Sipos, introduced a hitherto unknown notion of dance to audiences. It was modern, political and expressive, and connected New Zealand audiences to new ideas about dance and music as they developed overseas.

The group came to an end in 1948 when Philip and Olive Smithells moved to Dunedin, where Philip became the inaugural director of physical education at the University of Otago.

  1. Rona Bailey, interview by Jan Bolwell, for oral history project History and development of dance in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1991. Alexander Turnbull Library, OHInt-0164/5. Back
How to cite this page:

Marianne Schultz, 'Contemporary dance - New Zealand practitioners, mid-20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 July 2024)

Story by Marianne Schultz, published 22 Oct 2014