An Opening and a Mystery

The Exhibition

"We must prove to the Government that a ballet can be run continuously in New Zealand... At present the passing of examinations is all the student of ballet has to aim at. The prospect of joining the national ballet would be a wonderful idea."

Such was the vision of the Danish dancer Poul Gnatt, touring the North Island in 1954 with three female dancers and a stage manager – a troupe from the newly formed New Zealand Ballet, which had premiered the year before.

Poul Gnatt, having trained and danced with the Royal Danish Ballet, moved to New Zealand in 1952 and immediately made plans to start a national ballet company. Sixty years on – and now the Royal New Zealand Ballet, having received a royal charter in 1984 – the ballet company Gnatt founded has finished the year touring 48 venues in New Zealand as well as four locations in China. Gnatt’s vision of a permanent company taking professional dance to all of New Zealand continues to be honoured.

Alexander Turnbull Library celebrates these sixty years with its latest exhibition in the Turnbull Gallery – Assemblé: The Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty. The exhibition profiles four ballets the company has frequently performed – Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Peter Pan, and Romeo and Juliet – with each ballet illustrating a particular aspect of what it means to be a ballet company.

Installation shot of Assemblé, showing books, posters, artwork, and tablets for listening.Assemblé at the Turnbull Gallery. Photo by Keith McEwing.

Let’s Make a Ballet

The exhibition comes with a varied events programme, already underway. The day the exhibition opened we held a panel discussion, called Let’s make a ballet. Panellists included designer Dr Raymond Boyce, composer Dr Philip Norman, and former artistic director Matz Skoog.

Let’s make a ballet was originally the title of the tour that Poul Gnatt took around Waikato in 1954. On that tour Gnatt would start the evening’s performance with an informal talk about the history and developments of ballet and go on to explain the choreography, designs, music and the story for the ballet excerpts that were to follow. The quote above comes from a favourable review in the Waikato Independent, expressed after a performance in Cambridge.

At our panel discussion we talked further on what makes up a ballet, looking in-depth at the roles of the designer, the composer, and about commissioning new works. Unfortunately, Russell Kerr was to also join the panel to talk about choreography but he was unable to attend.

Dr Philip Norman, Dr Raymond Boyce, Matz Skoog, and Keith McEwing speaking at the panel discussion.L-R: Dr Philip Norman, Dr Raymond Boyce, Matz Skoog, Keith McEwing. Photo by Mark Beatty.

Further related events will be held in January and February, including another panel discussion, this time consisting of current and former dancers from the ballet company, a talk on ballet costumes, a tour of the RNZB premises, sessions with the RNZB Educators and a film screening at New Zealand Film Archive. Film footage, historic and more recent will also be available soon on the AV pods in the National Library’s ground floor.

Check out more photos from Let’s make a ballet or come on in and visit the exhibition for yourself.

The Ambassador – the Mystery Ballet

In all the research for preparing the exhibition, and in listing the repertoire for the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s sixty years there is one ballet programme that has been rather elusive. In 1959 Poul Gnatt, under the auspices of the New Zealand Ballet, gave a one-man performance titled The Ambassador that toured around the far north.

I have located two posters for it and one of Gnatt’s scrapbooks includes two newspaper advertisements: one in Kaitaia College Hall, 4 March, and Whangaroa Memorial Hall, Kaeo, 10 March. I was unable to locate any programmes or newspaper reviews of these performances and no other New Zealand Ballet programme lists The Ambassador as a ballet work.

Poster for Poul Gnatt's 'The Ambassador', promising music, ballet, humour, and drama.Poster for Poul Gnatt's The Ambassador, 1959. Ref: Eph-C-DANCE-NZB-1959-01.

The Ambassador was obviously a work on the programme but there may have been other solos too. The costume Gnatt is wearing in the picture is possibly that used for the role of the Hussar in Le Beau Danube – Gnatt danced this role for his retirement performance from The Royal Danish Ballet in 1963. A solo from this ballet may either have been on the programme as well or he could have used the same costume for dancing The Ambassador.

If Gnatt delivered what the posters and newspaper advertisements promised – and he did on all other accounts, so there is no reason to think he didn’t on this occasion – then this should have been quite a memorable performance! If you or anyone you know of was in the far north in March 1959 and remember this event, I’d be very interested in hearing from you.

By Keith McEwing

Keith McEwing is the Assistant Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Graham Atkinson December 20th at 5:09PM

Knowing Poul might I suggest that The Ambassador referred to the programme for the evening and not the performance of a specific ballet.