The emergence of Māori and Pacific Island choreographers and companies underlies some of the most innovative developments in modern dance.
Māori contemporary dance began to develop in the 1980s, continued in fits and starts through the 1990s and grew steadily from 2000.
In 1984 Stephen Bradshaw started a dance company for unemployed young Māori men and women in Auckland, Te Kanikani O Te Rangatahi (dance of the youth). Following Te Kanikani, Bradshaw founded Taiao in 1988.
Independent choreographer and dancer Merenia Gray set up a project-based company, Merenia Gray Dance Theatre, in 1994. She has also choreographed works for Toi Māori Aotearoa, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Footnote Dance Company and the Auckland Dance Company.
In 2000 Jack Gray formed Atamira, a project-based company. Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete, two of New Zealand’s most acclaimed male dancers, set up Okareka in 2007.
Stephen Bradshaw remembered two weeks at Dance Oceania 2000, in New Caledonia, as ‘heaven!’1 He spent the time with indigenous choreographers Bernadette Walong from Australia and Germaine Acogny from Senegal workshopping with traditional dancers from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, New Caledonia, Wallis and Rarotonga.
Cultural and dance fusion
Cross-cultural understanding and the combination of multiple forms of dance were characteristic of these companies. The most startling aspect of Te Kanikani O Te Rangatahi’s shows was the incorporation of Māori protocol before and after the performance. Members of Merenia Gray Dance Theatre had a strong affiliation with Māori culture, and classical and contemporary training. In setting up Okareka, Royal and Mete sought to ‘fuse contemporary dance with Maori themes and other genres to create authentic, diverse works’.2
A notable example of dance fusion was Tanemahuta Gray’s Māui, one man against the gods (2005). Gray (the brother of Merenia, who worked on Māui as choreographer) combined kapa haka, aerial theatre and contemporary dance.
Hui and festivals
In 1988 Bradshaw was involved in setting up Te Ope o Rehua, an organisation encouraging the development of Māori contemporary dance (and drama). It continued that work in the 2000s under Toi Māori Aotearoa (a Māori arts umbrella organisation established in 1996). The 2009 Aitanga Descendance Māori Contemporary Dance Summit led to the setting up of Kōwhiti, a Wellington-based festival of Māori contemporary dance that was held in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
Black Grace and Mau
In 1995 Neil Ieremia, a New Zealander of Samoan descent, began Black Grace (initially an all-male company). Ieremia’s works comment on topics ranging from domestic violence and rugby to racial oppression and the Samoan diaspora. By 2013 Black Grace had established international touring circuits in North America and Europe.
Another Auckland-based Samoan choreographer, Lemi Ponifasio, has become world-renowned for his company, Mau. Working with Pacific Island men and women, Ponifasio trains his dancers in the Butoh style. Visually arresting, Mau has gained a following predominantly outside New Zealand.
With its blend of influences from America, Europe and the Pacific, modern dance in New Zealand has been part of an international community while also manifesting a physical expression of New Zealand.