Nyree Dawn Porter (1936–2001), dancer and actor extraordinaire

Now that the Two Sisters exhibition is installed and open to the public, Jess and I are focusing our attentions on another iconic Hawke’s Bay woman: Nyree Dawn Porter (1936–2001), dancer and actor extraordinaire.

The initial impetus for the idea of an exhibition on Nyree came from six paintings, discovered in the Porters’ family home on Shakespeare Road in 2004. The young Nyree painted these directly on the walls of the living room, in which she taught dance during her teenage years. The paintings depict dancers in an array of poses with exaggerated long limbs. Her sister Merle Ayling recalled that Nyree painted them in this way to encourage her pupils to have long necks and elegant arms.

Melanie Oliver, the current owner of the paintings, offered to lend them to the Museum for exhibition. From this point, we began researching Nyree’s life and achievements. Her first love was dancing, and in 1954 the 18-year-old was the youngest dancer from Hawke’s Bay ever to receive the Solo Seal and Advanced Certificate from the Royal Academy of Dancing. She continued teaching dance up until joining a travelling acting troupe, ‘The New Zealand Players,’ in 1956. The major turning point in her life came two years later when she won the Miss Cinema contest, and moved to London to take up the prize of a screen test and follow her dream of becoming a star. The screen test turned out to be little more than a publicity stunt, but Nyree persisted and eventually embarked on an acting and dancing career in London’s theatres.

Nyree was catapulted into fame after landing the role of Irene in the Forsyte Saga: the first television literary soap opera. Broadcast in 1967, the show attracted a worldwide audience of over 160 million viewers in 26 countries. Her portrayal of the heroine captivated the public imagination, to the extent that when Neil Armstrong was asked who he would like to meet after he returned from the moon, he answered – Nyree Dawn Porter. Her performance also won Nyree a Bafta award and in 1970, she was appointed an OBE for services to television.

Nyree’s extraordinary fame in Britain and Europe did not translate back to her own country to the same extent. Ships were named after her, she received sack loads of fan mail, and even featured on British stamps but the BBC episode of ‘This is Your Life: Nyree Dawn Porter’ was never even shown on New Zealand television.

Through this exhibition, Jess and I hope to shed light on this remarkable performer and Hawke’s Bay woman. We would be very interested to hear from anyone who knew Nyree or who has related objects, photographs or information. The exhibition opens in September.

Gail Pope – Social History Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 13 May 2017

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