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About the Change

Royal New Zealand Ballet

A brief history

by Jan Bolwell, RNZB

courtesy of RNZB ©

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The Royal New Zealand Ballet was founded in 1953 by a Danish dancer Poul Gnatt. It started with just three female dancers, plus Poul Gnatt and pianist Dorothea Franchi. They were pioneers, taking dance to small towns in the North Island.

Gradually the company grew to 14 dancers and with the help of the Community Arts Service it toured from Kaitaia in the far north to Bluff in the far south of New Zealand. The company encountered real problems with the inadequate facilities available in some of the towns.

Poul Gnatt recalls those early touring days.
‘We accepted anything. There were only two or three towns where it was simply impossible to mount a performance. In one town we just packed all our gear again and went away, to the great annoyance of the organiser, the Director of Adult Education. But when you only have a shelf in the wall as your stage, then it is impossible! That was the case the first time we went to Kaitaia. And what did the men of the town do? They all rolled up their sleeves and by four o'clock we had a full apron built onto the 'shelf'. There were about 500 people who came to the performance. The thing that was extremely funny was that the men had done a fantastic job, but they hadn't anchored the apron onto the shelf. So it moved during the performance, and we had to jump over the gap! In some towns there were honky tonk pianos that fell to bits during the performance, and Dorothea Franchi would be down there with her screwdriver and spanner trying to put the piano together. We'd have to have a break in the performance while the piano was being fixed. It was lovely. Pioneering is a fantastic thing.’

Sir Jon Trimmer in full flight.
Sir Jon is regarded as a national treasure and is easily ballet's
most recognisable face in New Zealand. He joined the company
in 1958 and is now Leading Artist

In 1958 the company shifted from Auckland to Wellington where it has been based for the past 40 or so years. In those early days it had very modest facilities in Adelaide Road, a great contrast to the beautifully restored WestpacTrust St James Theatre complex which the company now occupies.

In the late 1950s some very famous New Zealand dancers returned home from England to join the company. They were Russell Kerr, Rowena Jackson and her English dancer husband Philip Chatfield. In 1962 Jon Trimmer rejoined the New Zealand Ballet Company as it was called at that time after studying at the Royal Ballet School in London and performing with the Sadlers Wells Company. Jon has remained as the company's most distinguished artist. Russell Kerr was born in Auckland and after studying dance in New Zealand he was awarded a bursary to continue his ballet training at Sadlers Wells School in London. Russell Kerr became the principal character dancer with the London Festival Ballet and danced with this company from 1952-1957 before returning to New Zealand. He succeeded Poul Gnatt as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, resigning from the position in 1968. Russell Kerr ran Southern Ballet for many years in Christchurch, and he continues to mount works for the company, most recently a highly acclaimed version of Peter Pan (1999).

'Ballet on water' - taken in New Plymouth at the Pines in 1962. The photo shows the company doing their barre exercises.
Photograph Taranaki Daily News © and courtesy of RNZB

Russell Kerr remembers first working with Poul Gnatt and the company. ‘I remember very vividly one performance in Auckland. Poul Gnatt had some problem with his legs and was unable to dance. Walter Trevor had sprained an ankle, so I finished up not only dancing my own roles, but also the Blue Boys in Les Patineurs and the Chief Warrior in Prince Igor At one stage I remember lifting Sara Neil, who was dancing the Polovstian slave, and every muscle in my leg just seized up! I crawled off stage where they sort of pummelled me,and then I went back again. The audience was so enthusiastic, I thought they were going to mob the stage. The people in the Gallery stamped so hard they knocked the light bulbs out of the lights in the Circle. The theatre was full, and echoing to cheers, stamps and bravos.’

In order to survive financially the company needed to tour the length and breadth of New Zealand. The dancers could not afford to stay in hotels or motels, so they were billeted with people from the community.

"These women, often mothers of young families, frequently living miles out in the country, opened their homes to the dancers. They ferried them to and from performances, nursed them if they were sick, washed their clothes, cooked mid-afternoon meals, mothered them and made their lucky guests into friends for life."

There were times during the 1960s that the company nearly folded because of the lack of money, but somehow it managed to survive. In 1970 the company first toured overseas performing at Expo '70 in Japan. Since then they have danced in many countries throughout the world - Fiji, Australia, China, Europe and the United States.

The company performing Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt's Prismatic Variations at the Lane Walker Rudkin factory in Christchurch in 1969's Spring Tour
Photograph by Christchurch Star © and courtesy of RNZB

In 1984 the addition of 'Royal' was added to the company's title, granted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. At the time there were only two other companies with this distinction - The Royal Ballet (Covent Garden) and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The criteria required to gain the title are that the organisation shall be:

  • pre-eminent in its field;
  • long-standing;
  • non-controversial;
  • financially secure;
  • devoted to national and charitable or scientific objectives.

The company now includes dancers from New Zealand and other countries, such as Australia, the Philippines and China. Many of the dancers are graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance where they trained in both ballet and contemporary dance.

Many different choreographers are chosen to create works for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, including New Zealanders Russell Kerr, Gray Veredon, Douglas Wright, Shona McCullagh, Michael Parmenter and Mary-Jane O'Reilly.

Jan Bolwell
Royal New Zealand Ballet Dance Education Resource, 2001

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