Cakes and Quakes

We entered into the spirit of the ballet company’s 60th birthday celebration – not just one party, but a whole weekend of excitement for past-dancers and staff from every decade of the company.

Our first big event was the book launch. Copies were flying of the tables at the St James even before the launch began, and ex-company members leafing through the pages were heard saying “look, there’s us – look how young we are!”

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 is a weighty book of ballet memories, edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, and published by Victoria University Press.

Clarissa had already interviewed Jennifer and Anne for Upbeat but not publisher Fergus Barrowman, who was there enjoying the launch party.

We had a chat over tea and scones at the St James Theatre.

Towards the end of the book launch, children started to arrive dressed in ballet gear, looking freshly scrubbed and rosy cheeked. Ballet mums were spraying buns into place, and putting the finishing touches to makeup. Here’s one of the aspiring ballerinas involved in the birthday events.

Anne Rowse, a former dancer and head of the New Zealand School of Dance, chaired a panel made up of key personalities who appear in the book.

They were invited to share an anecdote with the audience - one that wasn’t already in the book. Here are some of the highlights, stories from dancers Jon Trimmer and Kerry-Anne Gilberd, former Artistic Director Harry Haythorne and dancers Eric Languet and Lee Patrice.

The Panel Eric Languet Jon Trimmer Turid Revfeim Anne Rowse Russell Kerr Harry Haythorne Kerry Anne Gilberd

When the laughter from the anecdotes had died down, Anne asked the panel to name one work from the back catalogue that they would love the company to perform again.

Four Last Songs was popular, with three of the panel fondly remembering the 1992 work with choreography by Rudi van Dantzig. Jon Trimmer also mentioned The Rite of Spring, and Tell Me a Tale – a ballet from the 1988, set in the early days of New Zealand. Costumes for that production had been designed by the prolific Kristian Fredrikson. Ballet Mistress Turid Revfeim suggested Prismatic Variations, an abstract ballet by Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr – the audience murmured in agreement.  Russell Kerr reminded the audience that this production of Swan Lake was indeed going to be his own ‘swan song.’

The audience was made up of former dancers, company managers, friends and family of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and we introduced ourselves to a few of the friendly souls that make up the RNZB family.

Former dancer Shannon Dawson is now part of the ballet’s education staff, liaising with schools and teachers of the NCEA dance syllabus.

You can see the cat mask that Shannon had to wear in the special tour of the costume store that wardrobe master Andrew Pfeiffer gave Hannah Sassman.

Former RNZB principal dancer Diana Shand was visiting from her home in Napier.She performed Odette/Odile from Swan Lake in Russell Kerr’s first staging and she told us what that experience was like.

One of the great characters we met that day was Ken Ling, who was with the company in the early pioneering days. He was a natural storyteller and we had many laughs together. He had a great anecdote to share…

He also shared his memories of Poul Gnatt, the Danish dancer who, in 1953 founded the New Zealand Ballet Company.


We were curious about when the NZ Ballet Company became the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Jon Trimmer was able to tell us all about that:

Jon Trimmer talks to Clarissa Dunn
Jon Trimmer talks to Clarissa Dunn.

During the morning we’d noticed two big personalities who used to work together, having a few jokes. Harry Haythorne and Eric Languet were both back in New Zealand and relishing the chance to catch up on old times.

Although we got the feeling they disagreed on some things back in their company days, they both had one thing in common: their love for New Zealand.

Harry Haythorne talks to Clarissa Dunn
Harry Haythorne talks to Clarissa Dunn.

After a spot of lunch, we headed back to the St James for the matinee performance of Swan Lake. The foyer was packed and we took our seats in the Dress Circle. We were nestled in amongst many aspiring ballerinas, dressed in sparkly skirts and armed with magic wands – and enough lollies to get them through to Act 4.

The curtain opened on the magical cloth set designed by Kristian Fredrikson, who also designed the elaborate costumes. It had the look of an Arthur Rackham illustration and its pieces, suspended from the fly tower, seemed to transport us to an 18th century theatre.

When the curtain came down on Act 4 the house went wild. After the cast took their bows, Jon Trimmer – straight from playing the role of Prince Siegfried’s tutor - announced the start of the special curtain calls.

Former company members from throughout the ballet’s history were itching to step out on the stage after years of retirement. They came out from the wings to rapturous applause and wolf whistles. Jon, who has worked with the company through each of its 6 decades, introduced them all by name.

The spectacle was completed with numerous curtain calls, flowers, glitter cannons, and a multi-tiered, geranium flavoured cake. Russell Kerr blew out the candles and, ever the character dancer, picked up the knife, playfully fenced with it and made the first cut.

The NZSO were in on the next surprise, introduced by Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel….

Anniversary curtain calls post Swan Lake

In great spirits everyone filed out of the theatre and the party continued on the first floor at the ‘Friends and Family’ function.

We took NZSO principal trombone Dave Bremner from his perch at the bar, and asked him about the pros and cons of playing in the pit.

Clarissa Dunn interviews Dave Bremner from the NZSO
Clarissa Dunn interviews Dave Bremner from the NZSO.

Back upstairs at the function, the noise was deafening. Everyone was busy catching up on old times and debriefing after the matinee. Slowly the current company dancers joined in - their white swan tutus had been replaced with their ‘Sunday Best’ for the occasion.

Managing Director Amanda Skoog struggled to get the speeches started over the din, and her husband Matz whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention.

Harry Haythorne was next and after thanking people he began a toast to absent friends. He was interrupted by a low rumble familiar to Wellingtonians….

The ballet’s 60th birthday will be remembered for a magnitude 6.5 earthquake, which rocked the building and everyone in it.

This is a ballet family used to ups and downs, and who better to deal the situation than former Company Manager, Ken Ling (once a stage manager, always a stage manager).

The quote “It’s a company you fall a little bit in love with” has been bandied around a lot these last few weeks. Shortly after the earthquake we caught up with the man who said it.

In festive spirit, all the dancers from the current company made their way to the front for another rendition of “Happy Birthday to Us” accompanied by Ben Wilcock’s jazz piano.

Surviving and thriving for 60 years is no mean feat, and the RNZB celebrated in style, quakes and all.

Happy Birthday to the Royal New Zealand Ballet family!

RNZB at COVER of the book edited by Anne Rowse and Jennifer Shennan web res

Clarissa Dunn and Hannah Sassman go behind the scenes at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, in celebration of their 60th birthday.

Clarissa Dunn – Presenter/Producer
Hannah Sassman – Presenter/Producer
Jeremy Brick – Videographer

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Historical and recent images of ballet in New Zealand

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