Behind the footlights, Amanda Lafoy Brown

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60
Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse (eds)
Victoria University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9780864738912

My parents first took me to see the New Zealand Ballet at the Opera House in Wellington in the late 1970s. After a mad dash down from the gods for ice-cream at the interval, my sister and I would pore over the photographs of the dancers in the programme, each choosing a favourite in that night’s performance. It was the beginning of a love affair, and we returned to see the ballet year after year. I remember hilarity at the antics of Jon Trimmer, Karin Wakefield and Linda Anning in The Ragtime Dance Company. I remember tears after the farewell performance of Kerry-Anne Gilberd in Romeo and Juliet. But, mostly, I remember the magic and other-worldliness conjured up simply by being at the ballet.

Of the roughly 95,000 people who see the Royal New Zealand Ballet perform here each year, many will have similar stories of their own experience of ballet magic. I suspect, though, that only the most avid of balletomanes could name the visionary dancer to whom we owe the birth of our national ballet company, some 60 years ago.

Poul Gnatt was a Danish dancer who emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1950s. His photo on the cover of The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 says it all. Taken in 1953, the year Gnatt founded the New Zealand Ballet Company, it captures the Danish dancer en l’air in a balletic leap on Bethells Beach. Strength, grace and a determination to remain airborne, poised against the wild backdrop of the New Zealand landscape.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 was launched during the company’s 60th anniversary celebrations in July 2013. A ballet book, certainly, yet its themes have an appealing kiwi resonance: pioneering courage, entrepreneurial vision, perseverance, and an unwavering belief in performance excellence. Co-editor Jennifer Shennan originally set out to produce a stand-alone biography of Poul Gnatt. It was subsequently deemed more feasible to place a condensed account of his life in the context of a publication marking the ballet company’s celebration of his and their achievements.

A roughly chronological history of the company from 1953 to the present day is sketched by the successive artistic directors. Over this linear framework, the editors have laid a vibrant patchwork of memoirs penned by dancers from various decades, choreographers, and members of the backstage and technical crew.

There is rich variety in the distinctive voices and points of view of those telling the tale. Eschewing a purely historical or scholarly account of the company’s history, editors Shennan and Anne Rowse have assembled a very readable and often entertaining selection of personal accounts that take us on tour, into dressing rooms, rehearsal studios, set and costume workshops and even, briefly, into the company boardroom. Their combined narrative permits valuable insights into the passion and dedication that have underpinned the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s evolution from humble beginnings, through turbulence and triumph, to the strong and vibrant artistic enterprise that it is today.

Gnatt came to New Zealand from Denmark by way of Australia, where he danced with the then Borovansky Ballet. Finding no national ballet company here, he cobbled together a small group of talented dancers and, literally on the smell of an oily rag, drove them and his own truck the length and breadth of New Zealand, performing in 125 different venues in the early tours. The story goes that, at auditions, Gnatt required a dancer to have talent, commitment and ideally a heavy vehicle driving licence. A man who thrived on the challenges of pioneering situations, his resourcefulness in recruiting audience members after a performance to become friends of the ballet sometimes provided the cash to fill the petrol tank to drive the truck, dancers and costumes to the next town. In those days, the dancers drove the touring truck, met the locals, helped set up the stage and ironed their own costumes.

For a company that spends a significant amount of time on the road, there have been more than a few potholes along the way. Sir John Todd and Bill Sheat, who served on the board of trustees, provide insights into the company’s often strained relationship with the Arts Council and the financial crises that dogged the company – sometimes threatening closure – in the 1970s and 1990s. Former board chairman, Kit Toogood, recounts the company’s search for a permanent home in Wellington. Since moving to the capital in 1958, the company endured a series of relocations into facilities of varying suitability before being permanently based in the purpose-built facility above the restored St James theatre. His account of the complex and protracted negotiations around the St James project reveals the grit and administrative savvy of ballet company trustees, executives and representatives through this period.

Before the formation of the New Zealand Ballet in 1953, and later the National School of Ballet in 1967, serious dance students who aspired to professional careers had no choice but to head overseas. Understandably, young dancers are drawn to the training and performance opportunities offered beyond our shores. Fortunately, many do return home, and the Royal New Zealand Ballet continues to enable New Zealand dancers to live and work in New Zealand. Ballet luminary and company stalwart Trimmer is one such example. A number of contributors pay homage to Jon T, as he is known in the company, one describing the palpable buzz that runs through the theatre when Mr Trimmer takes the stage in a performance.

The company has had to move with the times – adapting its repertoire, engaging new choreographers and producing works that reflect its roots in order to attract new and enthusiastic audiences. The last decade or so has seen distinctly kiwi productions, such as Ihi FrENZy in association with Te Matarae i Orehu, and The Wedding, to a libretto by Witi Ihimaera with music by Gareth Farr. Dracula and Angelina Ballerina have joined the company’s repertoire and sit happily alongside the great 19th-century classics.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet Company is indisputably one of our finest cultural ambassadors, taking New Zealand dance to the world when it tours abroad every few years. Could Gnatt have imagined the immeasurable value that his company would bring to New Zealand’s international profile each time it takes the stage in the USA, Europe, China or Australia?

Gnatt believed that ballet was for everyone and went out of his way to make it accessible. One dancer recalled touring in the early days with Gnatt: “If there was a hall on a bend anywhere in the country we stopped and performed there.” This tradition of bringing the ballet to the people has been honoured by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, which continues to travel New Zealand with Tutus on Tour, and in 2013 performed in 50 small towns throughout the country, from Kaitaia to Stewart Island.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 is a fascinating and fittingly heartfelt tribute to our national ballet company and the people who have built, shaped and nurtured it through its first 60 years.


Amanda Lafoy Brown is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


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