At 83, choreographer and former ballet dancer Russell Kerr has seen it all. He's also seen significant changes in New Zealanders' attitudes to ballet. When he started it was considered unusual, he says.
"Ballet was for poofs. Ballet was for girls that wanted to wear those funny things called tutus. The men wore tights and it was all very, very strange."
Today, it couldn't be more different. "It's taken many years to break that down, but it has [been] broken down ... there are different people [involved] and different ideas and this is what makes it so wonderful."
Kerr lives in Christchurch, but has been in Wellington since last week overseeing the Royal New Zealand Ballet as it prepares to perform his production of Swan Lake for the fourth time. The company sees Swan Lake as the centrepiece of its 60th anniversary celebrations, which will also include anniversary events in Wellington this weekend.
But it's the fact that the company is staging Kerr's take on Tchaikovsky's classic that makes the celebrations so special.
Kerr's long experience as a dancer and choreographer and long history with the company effectively makes him a living legend. After going to Britain in 1951 for six years, where he joined Sadlers Wells Ballet School and Company, Kerr worked for Auckland Ballet Theatre. In 1962 he was made artistic director of New Zealand Ballet, a post he held until 1968. But he has always worked or been associated with the company in some way since, including via seasons of his Peter Pan and Swan Lake.
Kerr's own introduction to Swan Lake was while a student at Sadlers Wells. "It was a tremendous learning curve for me. I had walk-on parts and that gave me the opportunity to stand still and hold a spear or something and watch the artists at work and see how the whole thing came together. [It] as how they related to each other on stage, how they coped with inaccuracies, what they did when something went wrong. That was important."
So even at that point as a student dancer, did it mean Kerr was already thinking of being a choreographer? "I believe so," Kerr says. "The one thing that makes me a choreographer is music. I had studied and had diplomas in music before I left [for Britain]. It was my intention to take up music teaching. My dancing teacher had said, 'You've got to combine your music and dancing and come to England. We think you've got a career there'."
Not all dancers had musical training, he says.
"I found that the musical experience I had helped me in everything I did over there. I could step into a role very quickly, which was always a useful thing to do in the company. Someone would say, 'Get that Kerr to do it. He knows that by the look of it'."
Kerr says Tchaikovsky's music is the reason Swan Lake remains so popular, even among people who rarely go to the ballet. "You always leave Swan Lake with the feeling that Tchaikovsky has possibly won. It's wonderful, glorious music that lifts you right up into a different stratosphere."
The New Zealand Ballet company first performed an excerpt from Swan Lake in 1953, and the full ballet was performed while Kerr was artistic director.
"I watched so many and took part in so many ballets that when I was first asked to do Swan Lake for the New Zealand Ballet I was asked for a pretty reliable production, [one] that wasn't too far out and wasn't going to enter new ground. I was able to bring all those memories and notes that I'd made about various things. We had studied it so much.
"I could see that there were certain places [in the ballet] that we hold on to because that was of the past because it had proved so successful and so beautiful. There were moments where we could change it to make the company really feel that this was there Swan Lake. Every production of Swan Lake that we've done since then I've hoped that the company have been able to take it over and make it theirs, really."
The Swan Lake Wellington audiences will first see on Thursday night is Kerr's as first performed in 1996 and then in 2002 and 2007, where he collaborated with the late designer Kristian Fredrikson. But for Kerr one of the attractions about coming to Wellington and preparing for the new season is that it will still be fresh, even for him as he watches the show. "I like it when it's been handed over. It's no longer with me. The Royal New Zealand Ballet is so fortunate to have such a brilliant cast. The director, ballet master and ballet mistress keep their eye on everything that goes. It will be terribly exciting."
Kerr's praise also extends to the company as a whole. He says he didn't miss leaving behind concerns about finance while he was artistic director. "Every day was waking up and always thinking 'how are we going to survive today?' "
But having a well-run and well-funded ballet company is very important and the RNZB today has got it right, he says. "It's so marvellous to see the company nowadays with the people that back it and the Government recognising it for what it is."
When Kerr was a boy he had muscular rheumatism. A doctor suggested he take up dancing to help. He started with tap, but found he preferred ballet. "There was no good putting me in a football field. I was a small one and I would have been kicked around more than the ball I think."
Kerr now needs a walking stick. It's one reason he won't be in Perth later this year when his Peter Pan is staged. "My body has said, 'Listen guy, it's time that you started to stop'. It's no good me doing this as a one-legged choreographer."
Kerr doesn't believe it's the result of being a dancer. He also realises that it was the rheumatism that set him on the road to dance and choreography. Only once did he wonder if maybe he should have taken up another career, he says. He was living in Auckland and all the work involved in trying to get productions off the ground was getting him down. He took a test that purported to be able to tell a person what job they were best suited for.
"I went through the stage of '[I'll do] truck driving, anything at all.' Digging the road – my father had done it, so why couldn't I?
"I was told that I was just depressed and to back to the business that I knew."
The Vodafone Season of Swan Lake opens ins St James Theatre, Wellington in Thursday and then travels to Dunedin, Christchurch, Invercargill, Takapuna, Auckland, Palmerston North and Napier.
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