Modern or contemporary dance traces its beginnings to late-19th- and early-20th-century developments in European and American artistic practice and physical education. In contrast to ballet, which some saw as presenting a romantic ideal disconnected from real life, modern dance combined physical and emotional expression reflective of the here and now. The modern dance that entered New Zealand reflected influences from these international sources.
Canadian-born dancer Maud Allan’s 1914 tour was the closest New Zealand audiences came to modern dance until the 1930s. Performing barefoot, dressed in simple falls of cloth, Allan showed ‘the whole gamut of emotion in a wonderful way’ to large towns and small.1
In Europe François Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf Laban contributed philosophies and movement vocabularies to the art form. In the late 1930s European refugees arriving in New Zealand brought their skills, knowledge and aesthetics to local communities. Lucie Mendl Stonnell and Gisela Taglicht, both from Vienna, offered dance classes in the European style.
Stonnell settled in New Plymouth, where she taught creative dance classes for children. Taglicht had a Diploma in Physical Education and experience with rhythmic dancing and mime. She taught her version of Laban-inspired movement classes at Wellington’s YMCA for 20 years.
Dutch émigré Boukje Van Zon arrived in New Zealand in 1951. Having begun her dance training as a child in the 1920s, by her teens she was teaching and choreographing. Her creative dance classes in Auckland from the 1950s to 1980s produced many New Zealand dancers.
Margaret Barr, an American who had worked with US dancer Martha Graham (who was a dominant figure in early modern dance), arrived in Auckland in 1940. She became an influential teacher and choreographer, working with students at the Auckland Theatre School at University College.