Story: Contemporary dance

Page 3. Modern dance flourishes, 1970s and 1980s

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In the 1970s modern dance became embedded in the New Zealand dance world. In that decade:

  • the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (responsible for distributing government funding of creative arts) began funding modern dance companies and projects
  • the first professional contemporary dance companies were formed
  • the first national tours by New Zealand contemporary dance companies took place.

The National School of Ballet began to teach modern dance, and as a result changed its name in 1982 to the New Zealand School of Dance.

New companies

From 1972 to 1976 four contemporary dance companies were formed. John Casserley set up New Dance in 1972. Casserley, introduced to dance while a student of Philip Smithells at the University of Otago, said that Smithells was an important figure, not least because of his insistence that all his students try modern dance. New Dance toured the country assisted by the New Zealand Students’ Arts Council. It was the first national tour by a New Zealand modern dance group.

Following the lead of New Dance, Jamie Bull instigated Wellington’s Impulse Dance Theatre in 1975. Although Impulse did not survive the withdrawal of government funding in 1982, it was the first professional modern dance company in New Zealand, and achieved another notable first when it joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet in a national tour in 1979.

Susan Jordan founded Movement Theatre at the University of Auckland in 1976 (the company lasted only a few years). Jordan’s choreography, sometimes described as postmodern, included ordinary movements, language, stillness and repetition, and attempted to create new relationships between performers and their audience. Like Impulse and later companies, Movement Theatre had an active schools programme which was a significant source of funding.

Overseas influence

With air travel becoming easier, new developments in modern dance accelerated as dancers travelled overseas in the 1970s and 1980s. Film and television also introduced dancers in New Zealand to works by foreign choreographers. It was through this increased knowledge of modern dance that Limbs Dance Company emerged.

Limbs Dance Company

Limbs was set up in 1977. Founding members Chris Jannides, Kilda Northcott, Debbie McCulloch, Julie Dunningham, Mary Jane O’Reilly and Mark Baldwin came together at a gathering of dancers at Rongomaraeroa marae in Pōrangahau, Hawke’s Bay, in January 1977.

Northcott had recently returned from New York, where she studied the techniques of José Limón and Merce Cunningham, while Jannides and McCulloch had been students of the Van Zon School in Auckland. O’Reilly was a graduate of the National School of Ballet’s first intake in 1968, and Dunningham, Baldwin and Northcott trained at the Auckland-based New Zealand Dance Centre.

Expanding dance arena and audience

These young dancers believed that dance could reflect contemporary life by utilising popular music, simple costumes and settings, and by incorporating jazz, disco, ballet and pedestrian movement. Experimenting with contemporary theories, including breaking down the ‘fourth wall’ of conventional performing spaces, they took their dances outdoors, to cabarets, music festivals, student commons, fashion shows, nightclubs, theatre foyers, schools and prisons. Limbs brought modern dance to large audiences, enabling it to become an integral element of contemporary popular culture.

Douglas Wright

In 1980 Limbs employed Douglas Wright, a young gymnast with no dance experience. Wright choreographed his first work, Backstreet primary, in 1981. In the work, the strong male body (Wright’s own) contradicted an iconic New Zealand male activity, playing rugby. Backstreet primary provoked audiences to consider male muscularity as both a symbol and rejection of New Zealand’s dominant masculinity.

Challenging time

If dance was ever going to challenge the supremacy of rugby in New Zealand, 1981 was a good year to do so. Mass protests against a tour by the South African Springboks (selected on racial grounds) rocked the country. Wright’s Backstreet primary, about being forced to play rugby, was performed at a time when many people were questioning the game’s importance in New Zealand.

In 1983 Wright left New Zealand for New York and within a month he was a member of the renowned Paul Taylor Dance Company. He returned to New Zealand in 1987 as a guest artist with Limbs and the following year was commissioned to create the company’s first full-length work. Wright’s 70-minute Now is the hour was highly praised by critics, with one describing it as ‘a dance work of momentous importance exemplifying the coming of age of contemporary dance in New Zealand’.1 Nonetheless, the confrontational style of Now is the hour combined with the worldwide recession, and within a year of the work’s premiere Limbs was no more.

  1. Sunday Times, 6 March 1988, p. 9. Back
How to cite this page:

Marianne Schultz, 'Contemporary dance - Modern dance flourishes, 1970s and 1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Marianne Schultz, published 22 Oct 2014