Born in Auckland in 1930, the young Russell Kerr displayed an equal talent for piano and dance. He settled on dance, where his career began as a student of Auckland ballet teacher Kathleen Whitford.
He was awarded a New Zealand Government Bursary in 1950 to travel to Europe. After making his European debut with the Jose Greco Spanish Company, he danced with the Sadler's Wells (now) Royal Ballet, with Ballet Rambert, and as a soloist with London's Festival Ballet. He made a name for himself as a dancer with deeply informed musicality and outstanding dramatic expression.
After returning to New Zealand in 1957, Russell began to work for the New Zealand Ballet in 1959, of which he later became Artistic Director. An exemplary work from that period is Prismatic Variations. Jointly choreographed with Poul Gnatt, this work carried distinctly neo-classical tones, while its novelty also gave indication of the company's assured originality.
Russell is regarded as a consummate professional who has held many key positions in New Zealand dance: he was Director of the Nettleton-Edwards-Kerr School of Ballet (1959-61), Artistic Director of the New Zealand Ballet (1962-69), Director of the New Zealand Dance Centre (1969-77), and Director of the Southern Ballet Theatre (1978-90). His teaching and choreographic skills provide a continuing source of inspiration.
He was Vice Patron of the Auckland Dance Company, Patron of the International Ballet Academy and a Trustee of the Christchurch Dance Education Bursary Trust.
He was awarded a QEII Arts Council Fellowship in 1977, followed in 1986 by a Queen's Service Medal for Services to Ballet in the New Zealand dance community and, in 2000, was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
In 2005 Russell Kerr created a new full-length, two-act ballet based onthe secret life of Hans Christian Andersen for The International Ballet Academy, Christchurch. In June 2007, the third return season of Russell's version of Swan Lake toured the country. Raewyn White, NZ Herald, describes the work as "showing us once again the hallmarks that make him one of the great ballet choreographers. Kerr's rich musicality ensures we miss none of the emotional nuances of the score in the dancing".
Russell lives in Christchurch and continues to teach and choreograph.