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Royal New Zealand Ballet
A brief history
by Jan Bolwell, RNZB
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.
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 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
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
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.