Story: Creative life

Page 8. Performing arts

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Visiting American, English and Australian companies brought theatrical productions to New Zealand as early as the 1860s, but professional theatre developed slowly: it was the 1950s before a full-time theatre company was formed. Nevertheless, there have always been amateur dramatic clubs, repertory theatres and operatic societies throughout the country.

Professional theatre

Professional theatre took root with the establishment in 1964 of Downstage Theatre in Wellington. Several major theatres, including the Court in Christchurch, Centrepoint in Palmerston North, Circa in Wellington and the Fortune in Dunedin, were established in the 1970s. With the Auckland Theatre Company, these are the main professional companies. Alternative theatre reflecting the interests of children, young people and Māori has developed more recently, as have Theatresports and stand-up comedy.

Behind the scenes

Training in theatre arts is provided by Toi Whakaari, The New Zealand Drama School, and other performing arts training institutions. Well-known New Zealand actors, playwrights and directors such as Miranda Harcourt and Jacob Rajan are graduates of Toi Whakaari. Playmarket, a playwright’s agency and script advisory service, has assisted in the development and marketing of plays such as Foreskin’s lament by Greg McGee, Conjugal rites by Roger Hall, and Purapurawhetu by Briar Grace-Smith.


Social dancing, including folk and ballroom, has been a favourite recreation since the 1840s. More recently other kinds of social dance such as rock and roll, line dancing and Ceroc have gained popularity. Ethnic dance also has a long history, with Scottish and Irish folk-dancing clubs being widespread. Other dance forms have caught on, particularly Middle Eastern dance and Argentine tango, which are supported by New Zealand-wide associations.

Dance as performance

Before the 1950s, ballet and contemporary dance tuition was available, but there were no opportunities for professional dancers. The oldest professional dance company in New Zealand, The Royal New Zealand Ballet, was established in 1953. It performs both traditional ballet and contemporary works and has nurtured such well-known dancers as Sir Jon Trimmer. There are a number of contemporary dance companies, including Footnote Dance Company (founded in 1985), Black Grace (1995), Mau Dance (1995), Touch Compass (1997), and Atamira Dance Collective (2000). An annual dance festival called Tempo – New Zealand’s Festival of Dance takes place in Auckland. Dance is taught at several institutions – notably the New Zealand School of Dance and UNITEC’s School of Performing and Screen Arts – and is supported by a national organisation, Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ).

Kapa Haka Super 12

Many New Zealanders are familiar with the annual rugby Super 12 competition, where teams from around New Zealand, Australia and South Africa vie for the champion’s title. Fewer would be aware of the Kapa Haka Super 12 competition, held at Christmas at Tūranga (Gisborne) since 2001. Twelve groups, each with 12 members, must perform all disciplines of kapa haka (Māori performing arts) within 12 minutes. Performers are encouraged to be as innovative as possible while enhancing the traditional aspects of kapa haka.

Kapa haka

Kapa haka is a traditional Māori performance art form that is unique to New Zealand. It includes haka (posture dance), poi (dance accompanied by song and rhythmic movements of the poi, a light ball on a string) waiata-ā-ringa (action songs) and waiata koroua (traditional chants). It has undergone a revival and there are kapa haka groups in many schools, tertiary education institutions and workplaces.

Notable groups include Waihirere of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay), and the multi-tribe Te Waka Huia from Auckland. Kapa haka is promoted and taught by experts such as Ngāpō (Bub) and Nan Wehi, Pita Sharples, Te Hue Rangi and Tihi Puanaki. Since 1972 there has been a regular competition, the Te Matatini National Festival, organised by the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Society.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative life - Performing arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005