Royal New Zealand Ballet's tutus and tantrums

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2013
ballet
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ

Sir Jon Trimmer rehearses Romeo and Juliette in 2009 with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

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Sir Jon Trimmer is nearly 74 and Laura Jones has just turned 19. The Royal New Zealand Ballet's longest-serving dancer is nearly 55 years older than its youngest. They both say the same thing: They'll dance for the company for as long as they're wanted, and as long as their bodies and minds hold up to the rigours.

The rot has set in for Trimmer. He "retired" from doing the splits last year. The splits! At 73! He keeps supple doing pilates and yoga, and like Jones, he makes a point of staying positive and not skipping rehearsals. If he's asked to, he says, he will be performing at 80, possibly in a sequinned zimmer frame.

Today, Jones is so new to the company she is nervously awaiting her first annual review with the artistic director, Ethan Stiefel.

Trimmer, in the year the company turns 60, can look back on nearly as many annual pass-marks as the company has had years. There were a few in which he would have had to award them to himself, including the time in the early 1970s when he and his wife and former ballerina and ballet mistress, Lady Jaqui, broke a lucrative overseas contract to manage and keep the company afloat in one of the periods when it looked as if it might go under. It survived to turn 60 ten years sooner than Australia's national company, the Australian Ballet.

Trimmer worked with the company's founder, Denmark's Poul Gnatt, and its first musician, Dorothea Franchi, both talented and eccentric. Gnatt, temperamental in an age when that was tolerable – and strained by taxi-driving at night to feed his family – found relief in hurling a coffee cup or two against the wall. The sympathetic dancers, Trimmer recalls, reacted by replacing the china cups with plastic.

In the book marking the company's 60th – The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 – he tells a story about Franchi as an illustration of "the funny things that happen".

In his first year, he and eight other dancers, plus boss Gnatt, set off on a nationwide tour performing Les Sylphides and two shorter pieces. They were in a Volkswagen mini-bus, driven by one of the dancers, and were between Whangarei and Kaeo, where they were to perform that night, when the steering rod broke and the bus sped down a steep gravel road and, as if in slow motion, rolled upside down into a mangrove swamp.

"Dorothea Franchi, the pianist," writes Trimmer, "who had been knitting at the time, called out 'no-one gets out till I've finished this row'. She ensured we didn't panic, and all remained silent and didn't move. A short time later Dorothea announced 'I've finished. We can get out now' – which we did, in an orderly fashion, amongst the mangroves."

Gnatt, who had been driving ahead in the truck carrying the costumes and scenery, returned, and picked up the troupe.

"The performance, by the way, went well. Forever after the van was called Bottoms Up," recalls Trimmer.

On the same tour, in Central Otago, they set up the stage for the show in the small town of Tarras. The dressing room was liberally equipped with showers, and just as the beautiful white costumes were hung and smoothed, a team of "big, burly, muddy footballers ran in through the door, stripped off and started showering".

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The white tutus were splashed with muddy water and Gnatt, who had thought the little company had hired the hall from the local council for the day and the night, was incandescent with rage. He drove off to have it out with the authorities, failed, and packed up the dancers and left for Dunedin, the next stop.

The story went that, before the retaliative retreat, Gnatt told the footballers what he thought of them. The captain leered at him and mockingly asked: "Where's your husband?" Gnatt knocked him out.

The company is much more organised and professional 50 years later, says Sir Jon, "or that's what we hope". He looks back "with merriment a lot, and on occasion, nostalgia".

Trimmer met Gnatt in 1953 or 1954 when Gnatt had started ballet schools in Auckland and Wellington. "I was about 14, and a tiny 14. That first summer school I did with Poul [the other dancers] were mostly older than me. It was the first class I'd been in. He told me years later he'd purposely partnered me with the taller and larger ladies. He wanted to show me how hard it was and how much growing up I had to do."

At 18, after attending annual summer schools, Trimmer was asked by Gnatt to join the company. He can't easily pin down highlights of his career. "There were so many excellent years, so many wonderful years with fantastic performers, artists and directors. The fact I've been able to perform so long is a complete highlight, even if I just shuffle on and sit."

Gnatt died in 1995. In an essay published in 1953 and included in the book, he wrote: "The main trouble is that the New Zealander does not dare to try anything new. Do not forget it is a young country, only 113 years since the first government settled here, but you must not try to calm your energy and initiative ... Do you not want to improve your cultural life? The ballet is here but you must make every effort to help your young talent along."

Gnatt was followed as artistic director by Russell Kerr, who, earlier a dancer, held the position from 1962 to 1968. Trimmer says both men were "brilliant" to work with. Both had "in a different way, the ability to bring a character out in a dancer".

Kerr, now in his 80s, lives in Christchurch. He, too, kept his ties with the company and is choreographer for the anniversary season of Swan Lake, which is on now at the St James Theatre.

The anniversary will also see the release of the feature film Giselle, directed by Toa Fraser, a collaboration with the company.

The film premieres at the New Zealand International film Festival in Auckland tonight and screens at the Wellington festival next month.

- Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, Victoria University Press, $60.

- Lake is on at the St James Theatre until next Saturday.

- Giselle is on in Wellington at the New Zealand International Film Festival on August 9 and 10.

- The Dominion Post

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