NZ 'mother of modern dance' dies

Shona Dunlop MacTavish dances at St Clair Beach in 2009. Photo: Linda Robertson
Shona Dunlop MacTavish dances at St Clair Beach in 2009. Photo: Linda Robertson
Free of a frail body, Shona Dunlop MacTavish's ''shining spirit'' is free to dance again.

The 99-year-old, known as New Zealand's ''mother of modern dance and one of Dunedin's treasures'', died on Tuesday morning, surrounded by family.

Mrs Dunlop MacTavish was born in Dunedin in 1920, and by 1935 she had travelled to Vienna, Austria, where she studied with dancer and choreographer Gertrud Bodenwieser and later joined the Bodenwieser Ballet.

Her daughter, Terry MacTavish, said Bodenwieser and many of the dancers were Jewish, and in the build-up to World War 2, she helped them escape Nazi persecution.

''They went on tour, first to South America for the best part of a year and then Bodenwieser settled in Sydney to make her studio, where my mother became her principal dancer in the 1940s.''

The company toured Australia and New Zealand extensively.

While living in Sydney, she met Presbyterian missionary the Rev John MacTavish, who was on his way to the mission fields of China.

''Within five days, they were engaged and in three weeks they were married and had gone to China together.''

They were later reposted to South Africa where Mr MacTavish died prematurely in 1956.

Terry MacTavish
Terry MacTavish
It was then that she returned to Dunedin, where she taught dance and eventually established the Dunedin Dance Theatre in 1963.

At the same time, she taught dance at Columba College.

''She lit up people's lives. When she came back to Dunedin, which was a very conservative place without much contact with the artistic centres of the world, she brought back knowledge and experience and a passion for dance.

''She was a breath of fresh air, she wore these glorious colours, she moved like a dancer and she shook people up because she was so different.''

In 1985, she received an MBE, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Otago in 2001.

She was still teaching dance well into her 90s.

Two films were made about her.

University of Otago tourism professor and film-maker Wiebke Finkler told the Otago Daily Times in 2009 Mrs Dunlop MacTavish was ''the mother of modern dance in New Zealand and one of Dunedin's treasures''.

On behalf of the family, Miss MacTavish said her mother lived at home until her last few hours.

''She absolutely lived the words of her teacher Gertrud Bodenwieser - to follow her convictions, undeterred by material hardships or by the encasing wall of prejudice, and to have fought in the great revolution of freeing the human mind.

''Surely her shining spirit is set free of a frail body to dance again.''

A public service will be held at Knox Church next Tuesday at 1pm.

An obituary will follow.

john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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