by Raewyn Whyte
Book review: Tara Jahn-Werner The Illustrated History of Dance in New Zealand Random House New Zealand Limited 2008
Tara Jann-Werner’s just published The Illustrated History of Dance in New Zealand (Random House, 2008) provides a useful single volume overview of New Zealand dance history as we currently know it, organised by period and genre, and with overlapping blocks of thematically linked material which at times break the chronological flow. In coffee table format, and with a heavy paper cover which can be used to securely hold your place as you read, the book is plentifully illustrated with photographs, programme covers, poster and flyer images, pull quotes and fact boxes, and occasional cartoons and paintings.
Jahn-Werner’s narrative holds no surprises or new discoveries, rather it is a straightforward assertion of what is generally accepted as the most significant developments in social, recreational and professional dance, drawn together from authoritative sources such as recently published books, papers and reports, backed up by articles in journals, magazines and newspapers, electronic publications and websites, and material in academic theses, unpublished papers and ephemera collections. By also drawing from publications about New Zealand theatre, music, architecture and social history, she has constructed relevant artistic and economic contexts for the developments she describes.
The primary focus of this overview is on the influences on, changing patterns and movers and shakers in the development of dance as a professional art form. Beside this, the dominant dance activities of each era are given due regard, and the chapters are evocatively named. 1900-1928 is “Those magnificent ladies”and includes a mix of local and international leading lights — Makeriti and Bella Papakura, Dame Nellie Melba; Adeline Genee, Lily Stevens, Maud Allan, Anna Pavlova, and Estelle Beere. (If you are unsure why these names appear, you need to read the book.) 1970-83 is “Out on a Limb”, focusing mostly on Limbs and the artistic, economic and social contexts within which they developed and operated. A small number of other metropolitan companies are sprinkled beside them – Impulse Dance Theatre, Movement Theatre and Origins Dance Theatre — hardly a representative sample of the more than 40 performing groups active throughout the country in the early 1980s. The artistic context is completed with more detailed references to BLERTA, Red Mole and SplitENZ, disco, breakdancing, the Maori Renaissance and ASB Polyfest, and the mixed fortunes of the NZ Ballet.
At the relatively modest price of $69.99, this book will be particularly of value for secondary schools and their students studying dance at NCEA level.