Friday 1 April at 12:09 pm

Reflections on Russell Kerr

This week, just before attending the funeral of his mentor Russell Kerr, NZDC board member Geordan Wilcox reflected on the extraordinary role that Russell played in his life as a teacher and the legacy that he leaves New Zealand dance.

My family emigrated from USA to Christchurch 1977 when I was seven. By the time I was 14, I was a physical kid who had bounced around school socially and geographically, I was drifting and was getting into a bit of trouble.

My Dad’s sister was a flamenco dancer and my Mum taught recreational dance at UC Irvine so I guess dance had always been around me but I hadn’t been to dance classes myself. My mother used to go to meetings at Christchurch’s Arts Centre and I’d be dragged along and get really bored and just wander around the Arts Centre to entertain myself. I’d stood outside the Southern Ballet studios a couple of times and watched ballet class. Russell had obviously seen me there and he came out one day and said “do you want to come in and watch?” and that’s where dance classes began for me.

Later my father took me to see Limbs’ Dance Company perform, and that had made me realise that you could be a dancer for a living, but as a late starter I realised that I had a lot of work to do to catch up with the other dancers and that would take hard work. I decided I needed to leave school and train fulltime, much to my dad’s disappointment. He threatened to stop paying for my ballet lessons if I left school. I had already decided I would leave school any way and I would get a job to pay for my own lessons.

When I was seventeen, Russell stepped in again. He came up to me one day and said “I’ve been to the social welfare department and applied for Access funding to train you fulltime and it’s been accepted. You’re going to get a government grant and a weekly allowance and I’m going to train you fulltime.”

At Southern Ballet we did a lot of going out to schools and performing as well as shows at the Southern Ballet Theatre. Russell’s philosophy was always, always to educate and expose young people to the art form so that in the future they would become dancers or audiences. He knew it was the future, the bread and butter of companies and would keep the art form alive.

I did the fulltime dance programme for four years until Russell retired from the programme. Then Russell encouraged me to audition for the NZ School of Dance and the Royal NZ Ballet. I was accepted into the NZ School of Dance and later into the RNZB where I danced for 13 years. In those 13 years Russell staged and choreographed many ballets for the RNZB from Swan Lake in 1996 , Petrouchka 1997, Peter Pan 1999 , A Christmas Carol 2001, Peter Pan again 2003, and Swan Lake again in 2007.

Russell has been called the ‘father of dance in New Zealand’ and his influence across both ballet and contemporary dance in New Zealand cannot be overstated. His artistic vision and founding role with the Royal NZ Ballet and the NZ School of Dance has directly led to the world class infrastructure that so many of our professional and developing dancers today train and perform with.

His international accomplishments were extensive and included performing at the Sadler's Wells (now the Royal Ballet) and Ballet Rambert (now Rambert Dance). He could have pursued a long-term career in Europe but felt it was important to come back to New Zealand and give back to where he had started.

The bigger picture was his thing. He’d say “I don’t care if you’re in the back corner on stage and think no one can see you, because someone will always see you. If you’re not engaged, there are going to be people who want money back for their tickets.” He believed that everyone had an important role. There were also things that he didn’t like - leaning against the barre, yawning without covering your mouth or even trying to hide a yawn. These simple lessons helped me to understand that if you’re up and engaged in class, people will look and say “come forward, I want you.”.

Russell was a gentle man. He was always very good at pushing me in the right direction and seeing where I was going off track and gently nudging me back on track. I’ve said to a lot of people over the last week, in my whole entire life, I’ve never met somebody that was so selfless - in his generosity and passion for sharing his knowledge and love of dance, and his mentoring and encouraging of future generations. It was innate in his nature.

I remember on Russell’s 60th birthday he came in to teach a fulltime class. He walked in and did a preparation and did a double tour en lair…and landed it. He said “I made this promise to myself when I was in my early 30s that I’d be able to do it on my 60th birthday.” So I push myself to be like him and ask myself “can I still do that”?

I’ll never forget his enthusiasm for giving. He gave equally to all, from young aspiring ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, choreographers, teachers and to professional dancers alike, and his ballets were loved by many. Russell was a dance kaumatua and a kaitiaki for dance in New Zealand.

Russell leaves an unparalleled legacy. He shaped the lives of many, many New Zealand dancers, choreographers and arts professionals over several generations. We are all the better for his artistic talent and vision and so grateful for his generosity of spirit.