New Zealand Choreographer and Dancer John Casserley Dies

By Bess Manson for

Thomas John Casserley,  choreographer, dancer; b January 16, 1941; d April 21, 2019

John Casserley, who has died aged 78, was an exponent of experimental theatre and dance.

A key influencer in contemporary dance in the 1960s, his dance productions were off-piste, replacing the tutu with tank tops, and ballet pointe shoes with flats.

His designs, too, marked the start of a different era in dance theatre, including one for a 1972 production consisting of a jungle gym on eight bicycle wheels.

One Wellington critic begged for a synopsis in the programme to better understand what was going on.

“I could not see the reason for the crazy, strident electronic music or the weird voices. I thought I was watching the throes of a nightmare,” he wrote.

Casserley was at the forefront of modern dance by the mid-1970s, bringing the art form into theatres, studios and schools throughout New Zealand.

He had been introduced to dance at Otago while a student of Philip Smithells, who later co-founded the New Dance Group.

Casserley would later establish New Dance in Dunedin.

After graduating from Otago’s Physical Education school, Casserley went on to complete his masters in theatre at the University of Illinois, followed by further study at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, before returning to New Zealand to lecture in dance at Otago University.

He was an intense, charismatic and glamorous presence on campus, says Bill Manhire, who was a postgraduate student on campus at the time.

“He was very positive. I remember complaining about having to get up out of bed to start the day and he said, ‘I wake up wondering what exciting things are going to happen today!’ He always had a very optimistic sense of what was in store.”

In the early 1970s Casserley moved back to the US, where he was for several years a professor of dance at the University of the Pacific at Stockton in California. While there he gained his second masters, this time in American literature.

Each year he would return to New Zealand with a troupe of dancers to tour the country, initially with the support of the NZ Students’ Arts Council, then later under the patronage of luminaries such as Tup Lang, wife of the then Treasury secretary, Henry Lang.

Casserley choreographed several works for the New Zealand Ballet (now the Royal NZ ballet), including one inspired by Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water. He was the company’s first modern dance choreographer under artistic director Russell Kerr.

On one return trip to New Zealand to stage his modern ballet Children of Adam with the New Zealand Opera and Ballet companies, he spoke of the need for New Zealanders to choreograph their own work “…or we’re never going to have any indigenous work”.

“There has to be an experimental fringe on the edge of ballet or we’ll be transfixed on dying swans,” he said in a newspaper interview.

On another visit he collaborated with what would become the who’s who of the art scene in New Zealand: artist Ralph Hotere, poet Bill Manhire, musicians Jack Body and Barry Margan, in Song Cycle, a production of music, art and dance.

Forming Sound Movement Theatre, the troupe toured the country with their collaborative and conceptual work.

​Casserley was born in Rangiora and raised there with his younger sister.

He had a rural upbringing before being sent to Christchurch Boys’ High School.

Strong and athletic, he started out in the vigorous pursuits of rowing and wrestling.

It was quite by chance that he came to dance.

“I was lucky. I just happened to come across a rehearsal in a dance studio. My reaction was so strong I wanted to do this,” he said in an interview years later.

“What impressed me was the marvellous combination of movement and music and the wonderful kind of lyricism that resulted from the two.”

A fall from a horse and arthritis in both hips ended his dance and teaching career around 1980, and in 1995 he returned to New Zealand to teach English in secondary schools, settling in Whanganui.

A deeply religious man, Casserley joined the Catholic Overseas Volunteer Service, through which he travelled to Samoa, where he meet his fourth wife, Tuina, and her daughter, Pai.

They were married and had son Tama, Casserley’s seventh child.

While his work has faded into the history of New Zealand dance, at the time he was a huge influence as a dancer and choreographer, inspiring young dancers of the time, including the late Douglas Wright.

The old guard in modern dance remember his commitment, intensity and fearlessness as a dancer and an artist.

Sources: Casserley family; The Dominion; The Evening Post; New Zealand Journal of History (Marianne Schultz); Bill Manhire; Peter Ireland; Gaylene Sciascia; Ali East.

John Casserley with Pamela Meakins in the early 1970s. Photograph by John Ashton, Royal New Zealand Ballet Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-8050-09-13 John Casserley with Pamela Meakins in the early 1970s. Photograph by John Ashton, Royal New Zealand Ballet Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-8050-09-13