Poul Rudolph Gnatt, who was to establish ballet as a theatre art in New Zealand, was born at Baden, near Vienna, Austria, on 24 March 1923, the son of Kaja Olsen and her husband, Kai Gnatt, a floral merchant. The family returned to their native Denmark in 1929, when Poul and his sister Kirsten entered the ballet school of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. In 1939 they both graduated into the renowned Royal Danish Ballet. Poul was particularly acclaimed for his performances in La sylphide , Le spectre de la rose , The sleeping beauty and Coppélia .
During the German occupation of Denmark in the Second World War, while still in the ballet company, Gnatt joined the underground Resistance movement, meeting British special operations parachutists at night and arranging their accommodation. In the 1940s he married the dancer Helen ffrance, with whom he had one son. They divorced and on 18 September 1951, in Copenhagen, Poul married Rigmor Strøyberg.
After the war Gnatt had fine prospects within the Royal Danish Ballet, but he sensed that the conservative company’s policy – which required only limited performances from each soloist – would not satisfy his passion to dance. He coined the phrase ‘A dancer must dance’, which was eventually used as the title of a film documenting his life some 30 years later. In the late 1940s he joined the Ballets des Champs-Elysées in Paris, directed by Roland Petit, and then the London-based Metropolitan Ballet, where he met Harry Haythorne and formed a lifelong friendship, which would have important repercussions decades later. In 1951 Gnatt joined an Australian company, the Borovansky Ballet, which regularly toured New Zealand, ‘a beautiful country but without a ballet company!’ He made it his quest to build one.
In 1952 Poul, Rigmor and their two infant sons moved to Auckland, where he started teaching ballet classes, driving a taxi through the night to support his family. With local ballet teachers Beryl Nettleton and Bettina Edwards he put on a production in the Playhouse (later Mercury) Theatre in Karangahape Road and another in His Majesty’s Theatre, Queen Street. Ballet teachers abounded but there were no professional opportunities for the dancers they trained. The Community Arts Service, based at Auckland University College, responded to Gnatt’s idea of lecture-demonstrations introducing the art of ballet with a quartet of dancers, starting with tours to rural centres in the North Island. The CAS branches in both North and South Islands then took responsibility for tours in their areas. During 1953 Gnatt established the New Zealand Ballet.
Gnatt was always unstinting in his praise of the many who worked with him on these projects, but none received greater accolades than the pianist Dorothea Franchi. She accompanied classes, rehearsals and performances, shushed audiences into respectful silence, produced piano reductions of orchestral scores and carried a tool kit to repair the run-down pianos of rural town halls. Poul often remarked that although he did not know what had made him start a ballet company in New Zealand, Dorothea was the reason he kept it going. By 1960 the Gnatts had two more sons. Rigmor not only cared for the four boys but also designed and made costumes for the dancers, who in turn had to be prepared to drive the company truck, unpack, set up stages and lighting rigs, iron costumes, perform, party, pack out and drive on to the next town.
Gnatt directed the New Zealand Ballet from 1953 to 1962. It was a pioneering decade during which he planted the seeds of ballet appreciation deeply into many New Zealanders’ psyches. In later years, when the company was perilously close to demise, those who remembered Gnatt in action rallied to support it. He nurtured the career of Jon Trimmer with a great sense of pride, and Russell Kerr, Rowena Jackson and Sara Neil returned from careers abroad to develop the company. A particular triumph for Gnatt was the visit of his sister, Kirsten Ralov, and her husband, Fredborn Bjornsson, to dance in Napoli in 1962, in its first production outside Denmark; however, the tour was not a financial success.
That year, to his disappointment, the company’s board appointed a new director, and Gnatt left to become ballet master of the Australian Ballet. He was invited back to direct the New Zealand company in 1969, but this was not a permanent position and two years later he left again, this time for Norway. He subsequently held many prestigious guest-producer commissions, with the Dance Theatre of the Philippines (which he had helped to found), the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and companies in Poland, the United States, South Africa and Scotland.
In 1983 Harry Haythorne, then director of the New Zealand Ballet, arranged a reconciliatory visit for Gnatt to attend the company’s 30th anniversary celebrations. He received a Queen’s Service Order in 1983 in recognition of his services to ballet in New Zealand, and was delighted by the charter awarded to the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1984, in recognition of the company’s international calibre. He and Rigmor later retired to Otaki, north of Wellington. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by Victoria University of Wellington in 1994. He died at Otaki on 15 October 1995, survived by his wife and sons.
Poul Gnatt’s outstanding talent and qualities of leadership, spirit, wit and imagination meant that many New Zealanders, both as dancers and as audiences, came to know and embrace the art of ballet. In 1998 the Royal New Zealand Ballet moved into its own home adjacent to the refurbished St James Theatre in Wellington. Its principal studio was named in Gnatt’s honour.