26 Oct 2023

Mainstay of New Zealand ballet Sir Jon Trimmer dies aged 84

12:38 pm on 26 October 2023
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Photo: supplied

Sir Jon Trimmer, known as Jonty, was a mainstay of New Zealand ballet for more than 40 years and danced overseas with such greats as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

His sister told RNZ he died this morning aged 84 after fighting cancer.

Coral Trimmer said her brother "died with a smile on his face" despite his illness causing him considerable pain. His health had deteriorated quickly in the last week.

"I want to cry, but I am also relieved that he won't suffer any more. He didn't once complain."

Sir Jon and Lady Jacqui had lived in Paekākāriki for more than 40 years.

His sister said she was planning "a huge party" in St Peter's Hall, Paekākāriki , to celebrate his life, as well as a more formal funeral.

"We have been totally supported by the village, we've not had to cook a meal, and people from the local fire brigade were coming and helping us lift Jon."

In a statement, the Royal New Zealand Ballet described Trimmer as a "beloved kaumātua".

"For tens of thousands of New Zealanders, seeing Jon onstage was the start of a lifelong love of dance: he opened the door of the theatre and welcomed everyone in. For the artists, choreographers and crew who worked with him, he was a mentor, a teacher and an inspiration.

"There will be much more to say, in mourning and in celebration of a long life lived with passion, vigour and a steadfast joy in sharing the magic of dance, but, for now, we send our love to everyone who loved him.

"Our friend "Jon T" will be in all our hearts tonight, and we dedicate our Hansel & Gretel season opening to his memory."

Born in Petone in 1939 and one of six children, Trimmer was educated at Wellington Technical College Art School.

Trimmer began dancing with the newly formed New Zealand Ballet when he was 18, touring the country for six months in 1958 before going overseas.

There were only nine in the company then but for Trimmer it was a good time.

He trained at the Royal Ballet School in London for a year and then danced with the Sadler's Wells Theatre.

Returning to the New Zealand Ballet in 1962, he began taking lead roles in what he later recalled as the company's golden years when it had a big following and was accompanied by an orchestra in the big towns rather than recorded music.

All that ended in 1968 when a fire in the Ballet's storehouse destroyed 15 years of props and costumes - all uninsured.

Jon Trimmer and Judith Mohekey in Firebird 1973

Jon Trimmer and Judith Mohekey in Firebird in 1973. Photo: Supplied

Meanwhile, Trimmer and his wife Jacqui Oswald - also a dancer and later the company's ballet mistress - had taken leave. After dancing with the Australian and Royal Danish Ballets, they came home for a visit and found the New Zealand Ballet in one of its periodic crises.

They cancelled their contracts with the Washington Ballet and stayed to help. Restricted by the Arts Council to eight dancers, the company went on tour for six months. It performed in small centres around the country, sometimes in school halls and gymnasia, to appreciative audiences. The company survived and began to thrive again.

After dancing most of the great roles, and despite remaining very fit, Trimmer gave up performing the dashing princes and settled into a character repertoire of old men, old ladies and witches.

Trimmer in 1956. Photo: Supplied / Alexander Turnbull Library

In 1998, the Royal New Zealand Ballet - as it is now called - honoured him with his own show, Half-Hour Call, Mr Trimmer.

In 1999 he was knighted, becoming the only New Zealand dancer to be given a knighthood. He received several other honours and awards in his lifetime, including a Fulbright Fellowship and the Turnovsky Award.

Trimmer also appeared in dramatic roles in television and on stage - he took the title role in the 1986 television series The Fireraiser and in 2004 toured New Zealand with Helen Moulder in her play Meeting Karpovsky. A year later, he appeared with Dame Kate Harcourt in Blood, Guts and Khaki, a tribute to New Zealand's heroes of war.

He said in an interview in 2006 that acting was like an extension of his character work in ballet.

Jon Trimmer in Giselle. Image courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Supplied / Royal New Zealand Ballet

In 2008, to celebrate his 50th year dancing with the Royal New Ballet and at the age of 69, Trimmer took the role of The Don in the world premiere of Don Quixote and was on stage for most of the performance.

His contribution to New Zealand dance was also marked by a tribute afternoon tea hosted by the Governor General at Government House. Shortly after that, he was named Wellingtonian of the Year.

In his later years, he took up pottery and occasionally exhibited his work. He believed he had been fortunate to be able to perform in ballet as long as he did.