The life of a ballet pioneer
Talia Carlisle speaks to Royal New Zealand Ballet principal Sir Jon Trimmer about dyslexia, growing fruit trees and how to keep fit at 74.
Do you have good memories of your childhood?
I was born in Petone and grew up in the area now called Pomare. I’m one of six children – three boys and three girls. We all danced around at home and sang. My mum danced in musicals when she was young and my dad played the violin in orchestras. He danced around with us, too. Where did you go to school? I went to Wilford School in Petone and Taita North School. I didn’t enjoy school at all. Why’s that? Being dyslexic wasn’t very nice. They didn’t know what to do about it – they didn’t really know what it was back then.
What did you do school?
I always painted and drew so, I went to Wellington Tech [ now Wellington High School] because they had an excellent art school. Then I took a job in a commercial art firm for a year. I was the youngest one there. What did you do at the firm? It was basically for slides that were shown before movies. They were used in every picture theatre. I did that for a year, then joined the ballet company in 1958.
When did you start learning ballet?
I had been dancing all my life, but started learning when I was 12. One of my sisters was about 15 years older than me. She had danced in professional musicals and when she retired she started teaching. I’d go along and join in.
Did you always want to be a ballet dancer?
When I was 8 I wanted to be in musicals like my sister. Singing, dancing and acting. The whole family would go to the Opera House every time the opera company was in Wellington. I loved the songs and the dancing, the bright colours of the costumes. When we’d go home my younger sister and I would remember the lines and perform them ourselves at home. It was all great fun.
Did your other siblings become dancers?
My eldest sister was. My next eldest sister travelled the world playing classical jazz and harmonica. My younger sister took up ballroom dancing. She and her husband ran a dance studio in Lower Hutt for many years. My older brother sang for a while and my younger brother acted for many years with Downstage. Were you close? Absolutely. We’re spread out all over the place and mostly retired now. But not you. I don’t get up and throw myself around, but I do perform. I play older men, older damsels and witches. The witches are the best.
Is it tough maintaining a career in ballet?
You have to work hard for many years to get to a good standard, and have the right mentality. There are so many more dancers around these days, it’s not as easy as it was to get work. You have to work much harder to get a position in a company. But it’s definitely worth it.
‘I’ve had the most wonderful time for 56 years. Wow. How do you keep fit? I do my stretches every day. They’re a mix of ballet and yoga, but I don’t do a ballet class at 74.
Has the ballet company changed much since you joined?
The whole country has changed. We were a population of only two million in the late 1950s. I joined the New Zealand Ballet Company in 1958 at 18. There were only 10 dancers in the company and no stage crew, so we dancers had to set up the scenery and lights and fix the costumes.
It took another two years before the company got a big enough grant to have a stage crew. By 1960 there would’ve been about 30 dancers. What are you most proud of? It’s absolutely wonderful I’ve got a knighthood. It’s excellent publicity for the ballet company. Some of the most enjoyable memories would’ve been the royal command performances. We performed for the English royal family, the Finnish royal family and the royal family of Monaco.
Have you always lived in Wellington?
I lived in London for three years and performed for Sadler’s Wells and then came back. I was also in the Australian Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet, but I would always return to the New Zealand company. Do you travel for fun? My wife Jacqui and I don’t go away often because life has been a long set of travels, but if we go away we go to Italy.
What do you do in your time off?
I try to make my garden in Paekakariki look tidy, but it doesn’t always work. I’ve experimented with plants. I have lots of fruit trees, including oranges, lemons, mandarins, limes, bananas and sugarcane. I still do a lot of painting. When I lived overseas I painted there as well. Now and then I have exhibitions.
Do you find art a contrast to dancing?
Mentally I find it an extension of performing, only once you’ve finished you can see the product, whereas with a performance you do it and once it’s finished it’s gone.