The House that Gnatt Built: RNZ Ballet at 60

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has marked its sixth decade with a new book celebrating its history.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, published by Victoria University Press and edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, is not a narrative written by one author but a series of articles written by about 50 contributors, among them a number of its former artistic directors and Sir Jon Trimmer who has worked with the RNZB in its formative years and again from 1970 to the present day.

The strongest elements of the book are a chapter on the founding artistic director, Poul Gnatt, and the appealing layout, in a square format, featuring more than 300 photographs.

With so many contributors the chapters and stories are personal and told from individual perspectives. This means that a complete and impartial history of the company is still to be written.

The chapter on Gnatt is a mini biography of the dancer who founded the company in 1953.

Born in Austria to Danish parents, Gnatt was a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet who, in 1951, joined the Australian company, the Borovansky Ballet.

A year later he moved with his second wife, Rigmor, and their children to New Zealand.

He was artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet until 1962. Gnatt returned to Australia where he taught at the Australian Ballet School and staged Bournonville works for the Australian Ballet.

Correspondence between Gnatt and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust which co-managed the Australian Ballet at the time showed that Gnatt’s relationship with the company did not end well.

In 1967 Gnatt became artistic director of the Ballet Guild in Victoria and two years later, he briefly returned to New Zealand as artistic director of the RNZB in 1969.

The RNZB has had only two New Zealanders as artistic directors, Russell Kerr, (1962-68) and Bryan Ashbridge (1971).

Kerr and Ashbridge’s widow, Dorothea Ashbridge, are two of the contributors of the new book as are subsequent artistic directors, the American who danced with New York City Ballet, Una Kai, (1973-75), Philip Chatfield (from the UK – 1975-78), the Australian, Harry Haythorne, (1981-1992), Ashley Killar, (also from the UK, 1992-95, and author of A Time to Dance: The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 50), Matz Skoog (1996-2001, from Sweden) and the Londoner, Gary Harris (2001-2010).

The current artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, is the second American to be an artistic director at RNZB.

The first, Una Kai, was co-writer of Balanchine the Teacher: Fundamentals That Shaped the First Generation of New York City Ballet Dancers. (University Press of Florida 2008).

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RNZB at 60 cover

Gisborne Photo News, 18 October, 1956

Poul Gnatt, Le Conservatoire, Australian Ballet,1965. Photo © James Robinson

RNZB 60th Birthday Portrait: Dancers in costumes from past productions, shot in the Poul Gnatt studio, Wellington, August 2012.

Royal New Zealand Ballet on the road in 1959. Image courtesy of Victoria University Press.

Poul Gnatt, building a ballet set in the backyard of his family home, Sandringham, Auckland. Photo © Keith Woods