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Contemporary dance

by Marianne Schultz

From its origins in Europe and America, modern dance boomed in New Zealand in the later 20th century. Companies such as Limbs, Black Grace and Douglas Wright’s company have performed to critical acclaim in New Zealand and elsewhere.

Origins of modern dance

Modern or contemporary dance traces its beginnings to late-19th- and early-20th-century developments in European and American artistic practice and physical education. In contrast to ballet, which some saw as presenting a romantic ideal disconnected from real life, modern dance combined physical and emotional expression reflective of the here and now. The modern dance that entered New Zealand reflected influences from these international sources.

Emotional dance

Canadian-born dancer Maud Allan’s 1914 tour was the closest New Zealand audiences came to modern dance until the 1930s. Performing barefoot, dressed in simple falls of cloth, Allan showed ‘the whole gamut of emotion in a wonderful way’ to large towns and small.1

European influence

In Europe François Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf Laban contributed philosophies and movement vocabularies to the art form. In the late 1930s European refugees arriving in New Zealand brought their skills, knowledge and aesthetics to local communities. Lucie Mendl Stonnell and Gisela Taglicht, both from Vienna, offered dance classes in the European style.

Stonnell settled in New Plymouth, where she taught creative dance classes for children. Taglicht had a Diploma in Physical Education and experience with rhythmic dancing and mime. She taught her version of Laban-inspired movement classes at Wellington’s YMCA for 20 years.

Dutch émigré Boukje Van Zon arrived in New Zealand in 1951. Having begun her dance training as a child in the 1920s, by her teens she was teaching and choreographing. Her creative dance classes in Auckland from the 1950s to 1980s produced many New Zealand dancers.

American influence

Margaret Barr, an American who had worked with US dancer Martha Graham (who was a dominant figure in early modern dance), arrived in Auckland in 1940. She became an influential teacher and choreographer, working with students at the Auckland Theatre School at University College.


New Zealand practitioners, mid-20th century

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.

    • 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

Modern dance flourishes, 1970s and 1980s

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.

    • Sunday Times, 6 March 1988, p. 9. Back

New companies and international work, 1990s to 2000s

The void left by the demise of the nationally recognised, full-time repertory company Limbs in 1989 was filled with a proliferation of pick-up companies (formed for a particular work or tour) and choreographic experimentation in the 1990s. In Auckland, Brian Carbee, Catherine Chappell, Michael Parmenter, Shona McCullagh and Sean Curham all presented short seasons of works. In the South Island Daniel Belton and Raewyn Hill consistently premiered new choreography.

Michael Parmenter

Michael Parmenter had studied in New York, and returned to New Zealand in the early 1990s. His approach to dance was influenced by his association with New York-based choreographer Erick Hawkins and Japanese Butoh master Min Tanaka.

Parmenter has enjoyed critical acclaim throughout more than two decades of dance making; his achievements were recognised with an Arts Foundation laureate award in 2010. Other dancers to be made laureates included Douglas Wright in 2000 and Shona McCullagh in 2002.

New companies

Wellington ballet teacher Deirdre Tarrant created a unique environment for contemporary dance and dance-in-education when she founded Footnote Dance in 1985. With a dual commitment to fostering original works by local choreographers and composers, and establishing dance workshops in schools, Footnote provided a platform for new works and a future generation of dancers and dance audiences.

In 1997 Catherine Chappell began New Zealand’s first inclusive dance company for both disabled and non-disabled dancers, Touch Compass.

British-born Ann Dewey’s company Spinning Sun, based in Leigh, north of Auckland, performs in small-scale environments, including backyards and community halls.

Dance education

In the late 1980s tertiary-level contemporary dance education surged. From 1989 the Auckland Performing Arts School offered a diploma in contemporary dance with a focus on choreography. In 1994 Unitec took over the school and continued to develop its contemporary dance component. Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua began teaching modern dance (alongside Māori and Pacific dance) in 1991. In the mid-1990s the University of Auckland set up a dance studies programme, which included a strong contemporary dance element.

Other universities, polytechnics and wānanga began to teach dance, and many courses had a contemporary component. Throughout the period, the University of Otago’s School of Physical Education and the New Zealand School of Dance continued their established training.


Choreographers as well as dancers emerged from the tertiary dance programmes, most notably from Unitec Institute of Technology, the University of Auckland and the New Zealand School of Dance. Malia Johnston, a graduate of Unitec, has been one of the most prolific of this group. Others include Raewyn Hill, Daniel Belton, Kristian Larsen, Maria Dabrowska, Sarah Foster and Fleur de Their.

International recognition

Many New Zealand dancers and choreographers have achieved international recognition and success. Following his spell as a dancer with the London-based Rambert Dance Company, Mark Baldwin founded the Mark Baldwin Dance Company in London in the 1990s, returning to Rambert as Artistic Director in 2002. Douglas Wright established his own company in New Zealand in 1989, touring it to festivals in the Netherlands, Switzerland, London and Australia.

Carol Brown spent 20 years in London, returning to New Zealand in 2009. She continued to present work both in New Zealand and overseas, building on her celebrated career in the United Kingdom and Europe. New Zealand School of Dance graduate Raewyn Hill became artistic director of Australia’s Dance North in 2010.

New Zealand Dance Company

In 2012 a new modern dance company emerged. The New Zealand Dance Company, directed by former Limbs member Shona McCullagh, reflected the lineage of modern and contemporary New Zealand dance while also drawing on contemporary influences.

Contemporary Māori and Pacific dance

The emergence of Māori and Pacific Island choreographers and companies underlies some of the most innovative developments in modern dance.

Māori companies

Māori contemporary dance began to develop in the 1980s, continued in fits and starts through the 1990s and grew steadily from 2000.

In 1984 Stephen Bradshaw started a dance company for unemployed young Māori men and women in Auckland, Te Kanikani O Te Rangatahi (dance of the youth). Following Te Kanikani, Bradshaw founded Taiao in 1988.

Independent choreographer and dancer Merenia Gray set up a project-based company, Merenia Gray Dance Theatre, in 1994. She has also choreographed works for Toi Māori Aotearoa, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Footnote Dance Company and the Auckland Dance Company.

In 2000 Jack Gray formed Atamira, a project-based company. Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete, two of New Zealand’s most acclaimed male dancers, set up Okareka in 2007.

Contemporary–indigenous fusion

Stephen Bradshaw remembered two weeks at Dance Oceania 2000, in New Caledonia, as ‘heaven!’1 He spent the time with indigenous choreographers Bernadette Walong from Australia and Germaine Acogny from Senegal workshopping with traditional dancers from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, New Caledonia, Wallis and Rarotonga.

Cultural and dance fusion

Cross-cultural understanding and the combination of multiple forms of dance were characteristic of these companies. The most startling aspect of Te Kanikani O Te Rangatahi’s shows was the incorporation of Māori protocol before and after the performance. Members of Merenia Gray Dance Theatre had a strong affiliation with Māori culture, and classical and contemporary training. In setting up Okareka, Royal and Mete sought to ‘fuse contemporary dance with Maori themes and other genres to create authentic, diverse works’.2

A notable example of dance fusion was Tanemahuta Gray’s ui, one man against the gods (2005). Gray (the brother of Merenia, who worked on ui as choreographer) combined kapa haka, aerial theatre and contemporary dance.

Hui and festivals

In 1988 Bradshaw was involved in setting up Te Ope o Rehua, an organisation encouraging the development of Māori contemporary dance (and drama). It continued that work in the 2000s under Toi Māori Aotearoa (a Māori arts umbrella organisation established in 1996). The 2009 Aitanga Descendance Māori Contemporary Dance Summit led to the setting up of Kōwhiti, a Wellington-based festival of Māori contemporary dance that was held in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Black Grace and Mau

In 1995 Neil Ieremia, a New Zealander of Samoan descent, began Black Grace (initially an all-male company). Ieremia’s works comment on topics ranging from domestic violence and rugby to racial oppression and the Samoan diaspora. By 2013 Black Grace had established international touring circuits in North America and Europe. 

Another Auckland-based Samoan choreographer, Lemi Ponifasio, has become world-renowned for his company, Mau. Working with Pacific Island men and women, Ponifasio trains his dancers in the Butoh style. Visually arresting, Mau has gained a following predominantly outside New Zealand.

With its blend of influences from America, Europe and the Pacific, modern dance in New Zealand has been part of an international community while also manifesting a physical expression of New Zealand.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Marianne Schultz, 'Contemporary dance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Marianne Schultz, published 22 October 2014