In 1967 the National School of Ballet was established in Wellington by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand in 1967, primarily to prepare students for potential employment by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Under the direction of Sara Neil, the School began with nine full-time students - eight females and one male - and four part time Senior Scholars. The first home of the National School of Ballet was a former cinema: the Empire Theatre on Marion Street. Over the next ten years, the School had several directors: Russell Kerr QSM ONZM (1967 – 1968), Dorothy Daniels MBE (1968 – 1971), Philip Chatfield (1972 – 1975) and Rowena Jackson Chatfield (1975 – 1977).
In 1977, the Council wanted the space to convert into car parks. This prompted a series of moves for the School that wouldn’t abate until 1998; first to St Michael’s Hall in Kelburn, then in 1978 to a space above the Mecca Café in Victoria Street. Two studios were created, and a library/lecture room subsequently added. Anne Rowse ONZM became Director in 1978, a position that she would remain in for fifteen years.
In 1982, the National School of Ballet changed its name to the New Zealand School of Dance, reflecting the expansion of the curriculum to embrace contemporary dance training. Those who graduated at this time soon became the backbone of Limbs Dance Company, New Zealand’s first professional contemporary dance company. In the same year Shell established a scholarship which was to continue for some fifteen years; financially enabling two Second Year students to benefit from a third year of training and covering the salary of an outstanding New Zealand School of Dance graduate for their first year of employment with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
With developers knocking on the door in 1986, the search for a new home for the New Zealand School of Dance started once again. Former printing premises in Cable Street provided a solution for a time, and saw the School able to expand to three and later five studios with a larger library/lecture room, whilst from harbour-side waste land and sheds over the road Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand grew. Rochelle Zide-Booth was appointed director in 1993.
When the Wellington Show Buildings became available in the mid-nineties, a huge fundraising campaign facilitated its transformation into one of the finest performing arts venues in Australasia. With nine studios, a 200-seat flexible space theatre, the comprehensive Nola Millar Library, a classroom, physiotherapy, fitness and Pilates facilities, Te Whaea: National Dance and Drama Centre became home to the New Zealand School of Dance and Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School in 1998. Garry Trinder was appointed director of the New Zealand School of Dance in January of the same year.
The Todd Scholarship was established in 2001, and like the Shell Scholarship, it covers the salary of an outstanding New Zealand School of Dance graduate for the first year of employment with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Recent years have seen the School’s international profile bloom, with NZSD invited to become a Scholarship Provider to the Youth America Grand Prix in 2004, and recognised as a Partner School of the Prix de Lausanne in 2005.
In 2007 the School celebrated its 40th Anniversary with a weekend packed full with events. Alumni and supporters from all over the world joined staff and students in marking this occasion.
Today, there are between sixty and seventy full-time students studying at the School, and approximately fifty young dancers participating in the Junior Associate and Regional Associate programmes. Over the years, the fulltime training programme has evolved into a two-year New Zealand School of Dance Certificate in Dance Performance, and a three-year New Zealand School of Dance Diploma in Dance Performance. The students choose from the outset to major in classical ballet or contemporary dance, enabling them to work to their strengths whilst maintaining a firm grounding in their minor discipline.
Many graduates of the New Zealand School of Dance have gone on to make significant contributions to the dance world both nationally and internationally, dancing with companies such as Black Grace, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre, Rambert Dance Company, Michael Parmenter’s Commotion Company, West Australian Ballet, Footnote Dance, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Les Ballets C de la B, the Australian Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Rosas and English National Ballet.
Each of the directors - Sara Neil, Russell Kerr, Dorothy Daniels, Philip Chatfield, Rowena Jackson Chatfield, Anne Rowse, Rochelle Zide-Booth and Garry Trinder - has left a distinctive imprint on the training programme.
As a visiting reviewer from Dance Europe said in 2007, “For a small country the achievement is colossal; made possible when talent is encouraged, hard work is relished and achievements are rewarded.”