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.
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.
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.