Come dance with me

20 December 2013
Written by Sacha Kenny | Images by Sacha Kenny
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As one of NZ’s most highly respected ballet dancers Sir Jon Trimmer is a New Zealand icon, an icon as Sacha Kenny discovered, who still has time for the kids


Sir Jon Trimmer has been performing with the Royal New Zealand Ballet for over 55 years and although he no longer pulls on the tights as such, at 74 he continues to perform character roles mostly, he acknowledges with a giggle, depicting old men, old women and witches.

Recently Sir Trimmer visited a number of Kapiti Coast schools as part of the Kapiti Kids Motivation Trust and it was my nine year old daughter’s joy in recounting his talk and miming games that sparked my interest in meeting him. 

With a welcoming smile, his trademark beret and handle bar moustache, Sir Jon Trimmer is every bit the thespian as he welcomes me warmly into his Paekakariki home and creative studio where we chat surrounded by paintings and pottery created by Jon and his wife Lady Jacqui Trimmer.

One of six children and coming from a long line of musicians, dancers and theatrical types, including his father who played the violin in dance bands, his mother who danced in musicals and his paternal grandfather who taught tap dancing when he wasn’t shearing. It's easy to see why dancing came naturally to Jon “we all danced around the house when we were kids, including mum and dad, it was part of who we were”.

Jon started formal training as a dancer at the age of 12 when his older sister Pam, who had been a professional dancer in musicals in the 1940’s, retired from performing and opened a dance studio in Petone.

Having spent his youth partnering two of his sisters around the cabaret and concert halls of Wellington, Jon’s progression to professional performer came naturally.

“It all just sort of happened really. Poul Gnatt, who came from Denmark, started the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1953 and I think from about 1954 onwards he had a summer school in Wellington and one in Auckland, looking for new dancers.

“I was about 14 when I started attending the Wellington summer school – I was a very short, small 14, I didn’t start growing till I was about 16.

“Then in 1958 when I was about 18, he asked me to join the NZ Ballet company, which I did.”

Jon’s wife Jacqui also joined the NZ Ballet company on the same day in 1958 “we were just good friends for a long time and then when I came back from London in 1962 suddenly romance blossomed, we got married the following year and we’ve been together ever since”.

In 1959 Jon won a scholarship to attend the Royal Ballet School in London where he spent a year.  He then joined the Sadler’s Wells dance house in London for a further two years before, in 1962, returning to New Zealand and rejoining the New Zealand Ballet company.

It was a mixture of homesickness and discontent that brought Jon home “I actually couldn’t stand London. I loved the theatre and the galleries but the rest of it I couldn’t stand so I decided to come home”.  Later, in the mid 1960’s and early 70’s he and Jacqui spent two years with The Australian Ballet followed by three years with the Royal Danish Ballet.

Having travelled extensively and danced with many of the world’s top dancers including Dame Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn, it is recalling the early days touring New Zealand as a young dancer, when they were not only the dancers but the stage crew, lighting operators, wardrobe assistants and makeup artists – that Jon remembers most fondly:

“From Gore to Picton to Matamata, even places that just had a hall, people would come from all over to watch us dance, it really was extraordinary - truly quite wonderful, an eye opener in lots of ways."

With a career of remarkable longevity Jon remains the New Zealand Ballets leading character dancer. In 1999 he was knighted for his lifetime of achievement and service to the arts in New Zealand. In 1971 he was awarded Television Performer of the Year, in 1974 he received an MBE, in 1983 a Fulbright Scholarship and in 1986 was the third recipient of the Turnovsky Award.

In 2007 Sir Jon became involved with the Kapiti Kids Motivation Trust when former Kapiti Coast deputy major and Trust organiser Roger Booth approached him and asked if he would be a patron.

“It’s wonderful I really enjoy talking to the children. I talk about what I’ve done and what the NZ Ballet company does and in particular I talk about mime. Specifically mime because it’s very close to sign language and it’s a wonderful way of telling stories. Mime is actually a very old art within ballet, it’s not used very much now but it was something I learnt as a young dancer and have always enjoyed.

“Typically I will teach the children some old fashion mime movements from Swan Lake or Cinderella then put them into small groups and say ‘right you’ve got to think of a fairy story or a nursery rhyme that takes your fancy and work it out in mime, work it out yourselves, you’ve got about 10 minutes to put it together and then we’ll all perform in groups and watch each other’. The kids love it because it’s great fun.”

With two NZ Ballet national tours planned for 2014; ongoing commitments as part of the Kapiti Kids Motivation Trust and with a book following his and Jacqui’s lives as dancers, written in conjunction with Roger Booth, due to be published early next year Jon’s life shows no signs of slowing down and at 74 years young that's just the way he likes it.




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