Theatre Royal, 78 Rutherford Street, Nelson

24/07/2012 - 26/07/2012

Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

27/07/2012 - 31/07/2012

Queenstown Memorial Hall, Queenstown

19/04/2013 - 19/04/2013

TSB Showplace, New Plymouth

30/08/2013 - 31/08/2013

Lake Wanaka Centre, Wanaka

18/04/2013 - 18/04/2013

Maidment Theatre, Auckland

25/08/2012 - 29/07/2012

Gallagher Concert Chamber, Wel Academy of Performing Arts, Waikato University, Hamilton

08/08/2012 - 11/08/2012

Aurora Centre, Burnside, Christchurch

13/09/2013 - 14/09/2013

Festival of Colour 2013

Taranaki International Arts Festival 2013

Christchurch Arts Festival 2013

Production Details

Vaka was initially inspired by The Raft video installation by Bill Viola and the controversial portrayal of Maori explorers in the infamous painting The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand by Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie 1898.

“During this creative process we have realised that we are our own vaka (canoe) carrying our values and belief systems, experiences and memories good and bad, and a hope that when we leave this planet we leave it in a better shape than when we found it.

The journey of every vaka faces challenges and danger as it navigates towards an often unknown future. We are constantly asked to evolve and adapt in order to survive. How much of ourselves do we allow to change? The question I was struck with when I considered The Raft was ‘why does it often take a disaster or life threatening events for humans to demonstrate humanity?’”
– Neil Ieremia

Vaka has gone on to be developed through the following questions, which form the basis of the work;
1. If a vaka is a vehicle for survival that carries our hope for life,
then what is your definition of a vaka in today’s society?
2. Who or what are the contents of your vaka and what lengths will
you go to in order to protect them?
3. If the contents of your vaka link the past and future and can be
shared or transferred, who will you share them with and why?

For more information about Black Grace, visit their website –  


Dancers (2013): Sean MacDonald, Abby Crowther, Zoë Visvanathan, Sarah Baron, Brent Dockary, Joash Tuugamusu, Brydie Colquhoun, Otis Herring, Andy Faiaoga (Intern), Callum Sefo (Intern), Nita Latu (Intern)

Technical Manager (2013: Ann Kristin Kaiser

Projection Designer/Operator (2013):  Tom Bogdanowicz

Music: The Nature of Things -  Natalia Mann; Cloth and The Running - Andy Morton; New Land and Survivor - Neil Ieremia
Samples: Problems (Zion Train Version) - Salmonella Dub; The Raft - Fat Freddy’s Drop; Landscape Prelude - Victoria Kelly; Aotearoa - Trinity Roots

Dancers (2012): Sean MacDonald, Zoe Watkins, Sarah Baron, Thomas Fonua, Daniel McCarroll, Amy Moxham, Carl  Tolentino.

60 mins

Pulsating and thrilling performance

Review by Toby Behan 14th Sep 2013

Vaka should be mandatory viewing for every dance enthusiast, as well as for a sizeable percentage of total dance novices.

The Christchurch Arts Festival provided Christchurch audiences with the opportunity last night to see Black Grace take to the stage again, after a lengthy gap between seasons. It was a triumphant return, with choreographer Neil Ieremia providing an evening of substantial, meaty and technically accomplished creation.

Indeed it could be argued that Ieremia possesses, more than any other current contemporary New Zealand choreographer, an understanding of structure and how to use it to great effect on stage. His development of the dance vocabulary within Vaka was extraordinary. Movement pathways and sequences were presented and truly developed (displayed in different group configurations, tempos, and situations) with stunning effect. As an audience member, rather than being bombarded with a constant flow of new movement, the familiarity of certain patterns instructs us – and then we are surprised, delighted when the pattern is expanded or broken.

Ieremia also displays a command of patterning of group-based movement that is second to none in the contemporary dance scene here. A close observation of the intricate, dense movement passages, including placement and pathways, watching new material introduced seamlessly into a unison phrase by splitting the group in halves, thirds and quarters, is an instructive delight. The easy road is never taken for the duration of the evening’s performance – with the dancers pushed to the limits to execute the precise choreography within defined physical boundaries, interspatial group relationships and also split-second timing. The joys of watching the rhythms (provided by a variety of musicians including Salmonella Dub, Trinity Roots and Fat Freddy’s Drop) so perfectly executed by the superbly disciplined dancers, are palpable.

The work is thematically drawn together by the concept of Vaka, being inspired by Bill Viola’s video installation The Raft, and also by Steele and Goldie’s controversial painting The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand. The programme notes explain connections made via questioning the vaka as a vehicle for survival, carrying our hope for life. It also mentions links between the past and the future, as related to our own vaka. Elements of this questioning can clearly be seen – the beginning of the performance contains many symbolic shapes, imagery and motifs related to vaka movement and sculpture. Cleverly, an almost instantaneous switch halfway through the performance that clearly depicts contemporary society enables the audience to link the concept of the vaka tradition with our own lives, relating to the message.

Video snippets are projected onto cloth and bodies to develop this relationship further, although these are perhaps less effective than the physical depictions through choreography. In fact, if there is an area of weakness throughout the production, it is possibly in a lack of emotional conviction (that there is clearly the potential to communicate to the audience – so powerful is the precision and intelligence behind the choreographic craft).

The dancers as a team are stunning, well rehearsed, and totally committed to the performance at hand and to each other.  The lighting design by Bonnie Burrill is dark and atmospheric – but not at all distracting.

Black Grace, a company originally comprised of only male dancers from Pacific, Maori and New Zealand heritage, can now be viewed onstage with male and female dancers from varied ethnic backgrounds. This is a privilege to see and the company has visibly developed, whilst staying true to the roots of its formation. Vaka is a breathtaking performance of contemporary New Zealand dance for our country to be proud of. 


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Explosive rhythm and energy

Review by Sue Wards 19th Apr 2013

Wanaka audiences don’t get many opportunities to see contemporary dance shows, but Black Grace’s Vaka (as part of the Festival of Colour 2013) is so good it was worth the six year wait since their last visit. 

With one sold-out show only, a waiting list and a Black Grace buzz around town, the audience was practically quivering in anticipation, and within the first moments of the show I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. Black Grace has made a name for its explosive rhythm and energy and in Vaka this doesn’t falter. Beautifully complemented by sound effects and music by Trinity Roots, Salmonella Dub, Fat Freddy’s Drop and others, Vaka weaves elements of traditional Pacific culture and dance with the landscape of Aotearoa and Kiwi culture.

You could be completely seized by the dancing without knowing the inspiration of the piece. But for the record, Black Grace founder and choreographer Neil Ieremia was inspired by The Raft (a video installation by Bill Viola) and the portrayal of the first Maori arrivals in New Zealand in Goldie and Steele’s romanticised 1898 painting ‘The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand’. Ieremia went on to explore the nature of the vaka as a vehicle for survival which carries our hope for life: how it is defined; what are its contents; how fiercely would they be protected.

The six male dancers are joined by four female dancers, who match their male counterparts in athleticism and passion. All the dancers are a joy to watch. Two audio-visual interludes are also mesmerising: the first with images of Aotearoa projected onto fabric, the second with sound clips and news items projected directly onto the dancers’ backs. 

Disclaimer: I’m no dancer, but if there were any flaws in the one-hour performance of Vaka I didn’t see them. The dancers’ finesse and stamina alone deserved the standing ovation they received, but there is so much more to see and experience here. I’m not sure I can wait another six years to see Black Grace again.


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Awesome dancing

Review by Raewyn Whyte 26th Aug 2012

Black Grace’s five centre New Zealand tour of their new 65 minute work Waka  made it home this weekend to Auckland, and the stage of the Maidment Theatre where the company started out in 1995. With international touring now providing much of the company’s income, home town audiences see the company once every 18 months, on average, and this was a long awaited event.

The opening night audience was definitely in awe of the dancers – Zoe Watkins, Sarah Baron, Amy Moxham, Sean Macdonald, Thomas Fonua, Carl Tolentino and Daniel McCarroll – for their finely honed bodies, virtuoso performances, and unwavering  focus and commitment .The end of the  performance was saluted  with whistling, stamping, sustained applause and a semi-standing ovation. The dancers deserved every bit of that response for their stunning capacity to deliver technically challenging, physically demanding movement at a punishing pace without faltering.

There is a constantly shifting combination of dancers, ranging from squads of three and four, to the full ensemble of seven, with duets and  solos peppered about. The pace is cracking, often driven along by percussive sections in the  music, ranging from Trinity Roots and Fat Freddy’s drop to harp music by Natalia Mann and original music by the choreographer Neil Ieremia.  The ensemble is tight, moving as one in unison sections in which their matching of one another would be the envy of any corps de ballet.  They are highly responsive to one another in partner work, and precision in placement and timing sees soft landings assured. There are moments that catch one’s eye — the newcomer Carl Tolentino gets some lovely cameos, with sinuous, luxuriant curving, flowing movements which seem a little at odds with the general drivenness of things;  the women have blurringly speedy hand gestures which seem flung from their hands, and one or another is several times lifted high, high above proceedings looking much like a sail furled below the crows nest atop the mast.

Neil Ieremia’s choreography for this new work, Waka, comes in modular blocks from which the dance is built, Lego-like, with further blocks of running sequences used as links. Although there are variations within some blocks, and permutations within others, there is a distinctly narrow and specifically limited array of movements and phrases, so you come quickly to recognize what has been seen before.  

Familiar motifs are scattered through these blocks, some old favourites such as the stag leap, running on the spot with picked up, kicked back feet, the spinning top leap on the run which travels along the diagonal. And new ones – the dancers line up and bend their knees and lie back onto the dancer behind,  like a stack of plastic chairs with ever shorter legs;  one dancer lies on her back and another is lifted onto her upraised feet for a moment; stepping and running patterns change directions, and once the square has been squared, mutate.

The repetition of these movement blocks is effectively used to convey the arduous, risky and punishingly repetitious nature of ocean voyaging in a doubled-hulled canoe.  Arrayed in shifting lines, and facing a number of different “fronts”, the dancers take to the ocean, powering through the waves at first, settling into a rhythm, weathering calms and somehow recovering from disastrous storms, both on the water and within the crew.

Eventually, landfall is signaled, with projected film of Aotearoa’s snow-clad mountains, rocky coastlines and Pacific flora projected onto a huge sheet extending from sleeping dancer Zoe Watkins right across the stage.

Beyond that section, the work appears entirely abstract in nature, despite changes in costume from voyaging blacks to everyday street clothes which imply a different kind of social relations amongst the crew. The overall impact is sheerly physical, highlighting the extraordinary muscularity and intense immersion in the moment of execution required  from the dancers, rather than communicating any profound understanding about what it is to be human.


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Fast paced, dynamic and at times exhausting to watch

Review by Brenda Rae Kidd 10th Aug 2012

Black Grace performed their latest work ‘Waka’ to a near capacity audience at the Gallagher Performing Arts Centre at Waikato University.

Choreographer Neil Ieremia created this work after watching The Raft video installation by Bill Viola.  Ieremia explains that when he considered The Raft, he wondered ‘why does it often take a disaster or life threatening event for humans to display humanity?’

Waka is about a journey.   The Waka a metaphor for our physical self – that which carries us through life. 

There is a scent of myrrh in the theatre, which may be intentional, or rather the perfume of choice for someone in the audience.  Whatever – it is evocative of that biblical journey made by three wise men on the eve of the birth of Jesus. 

Waka is fast paced, dynamic and at times exhausting to watch.  The seven dancers on stage display athleticism and avid discipline, which makes one rue that double dipped chocolate brownie with mochachino thought necessary pre-show.

There is no denying the theme in Ieremia’s  Waka.  While identifiably Polynesian, favourable international reviews testify the message is universal.  We all seek to better our lot, don’t we, but at what cost?  Do our values change or do we stay true to humanity?  

Issues around colonialism and industry are explored; the dancers’ bodies embody a hurry-hurry freneticism in the race to get ahead. They jostle for position pushing each other out of the way – every man for himself.

Bodies are used for the projection of images to reiterate the message. This is compelling.  Effective use of lighting and minimal props enhances the movement.

And there is redemption.  As we watch the dancers tenderly carry each other, we realise that the people around us, whanau, are our waka too.



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Rhythmically driven movement and rich imagery

Review by Virginia Kennard 28th Jul 2012

The WAKA is a vessel, that carries, that journeys, that contains,  and this waka, this journey, is certainly evident in Ieremia’s new work for Black Grace. The company delivers the promised physical prowess, and Ieremia offers some stunning images and intense dynamic sequences which enable the dancers to shine, but there are lengthy sections of intense movement that dilute the communication of any coherent, overarching theme. 

A body of bodies traverses the diagonal, a moving physical interaction introducing the group as Waka. The performativity and group connection here is powerful quickly breaks down as pure movement is fleshed out. Facial expressions of shocked concentration reveal the physical difficulty of the choreography with Zoë Watkins catching the eye with her intensity of focus. Carl Tolentino moves with sinuous grace and strength, and Daniel McCarroll excels in a chopped and direct style. Sean McDonald seeks to perform expansively, to escape the constriction of the physically demanding movement.  Notably in the closing dynamic moments of the piece, there are flashes of performative fun and excitement which offer a contrast to all that has come before, with Sarah Baron shining here.

Rhythmically driven unison movement phrases built from rolls and leaps and lifts and turns ensue, structured into partnering sequences and mixed in with stepping and walking, and eventually running, with constant entrances and exits as dancers move through the space of the stage. These are familiar devices of contemporary dance, accented here by Ieremia’s Pacific aesthetic, and infused with classical lines and vocabulary.

The motif of pulling as a means of support is superbly visually successful: but this presents an intriguing emotional paradox – pulling generally has a destabilising effect, but here it instead creates pockets of foundation from which forward movement is facilitated.

The lighting shifts from vague states and fades to vertical beams of light from above, creating ever-shifting nets of hexagonal shapes on the floor, and at times offering up celestial pathways for navigation across the stage. Diagonally focused pathways dominate for a long period, paralleling the forward movement of a waka acros the oceans in a desired direction. There are a lot of repeated sequences – movement phrases become familiar, and drifting men traverse the stage carrying lifeless women, and there are sequences of lifts which seem endless. But eventually there’s  one magnificent lift, performed several times which presents Zoë Watkins, crucifix-like on the upturned feet of another dancer lying prone on the floor. Initially it  suggests a goddess on a pedestal, a unified object, but as it repeats, including more people, more layers, and daring balances it become a metaphor for the challenge to maintain the life of all aboard the voyaging waka.

The music shifts from languorous beautiful guitars to sinister and powerful drums. Strange X-Files-esque sounds occur but the drum beat remains consistent. Trinity Roots’ Aotearoa is a reminder of the theme of the work, enveloping us as the performers battle one another.

There’s some superb imagery – a sheet as ship’s sail with dancers as mast and sailors, the same sheet as drag net with huddled dancers in the torchlight as a wonderful catch. Video projection of trees and waves onto the dancers’ bodies magically turn them into landscape. The company bares their backs for a literal demonstration of contemporary political themes: projection of text and images with aural quotes and interviews regarding politics, terrorism and the Christchurch earthquake. The typed text is more appropriate and poignant: “I am from”, “I am a carrier”, “I am a vessel”.

Arms begin searching, yearning, journeying towards a destination. The choreographed diagonal phrases return, as do the earlier walking patterns, the physical dynamics matching the bass-driven music. The works ends with arms stretched skyward, ever hopeful.



For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Waves of movement, waves of emotion

Review by Janet Whittington 25th Jul 2012

Black Grace is a dance group you start enjoying long before the opening curtain. I waited with a group of strangers a week earlier, and struck up a conversation, as you do. The envy in their voice when they know you are going…. I don’t know of another dance group that generates this level of emotion. The excited buzz in the full house audience as we settle into our seats tells me this sequence of events has played out for a lot more of the audience than just myself.  We are the lucky ones. We know it.

The curtain opens.

Black. The stage. The floor. The scanty tropical costumes.

Grace. No sound. No music. Black Grace moving, floating, leaping and falling without us hearing the landing. We hold our breath. We still can’t hear them moving. I hate the teenage word, but here it fits: Awesome.

The music builds slowly. Clever dance sequences are introduced, others move in, overlapping the previous sequences, the original moves flowing back again,  repeated. Using repetition plus a continuing stream of additional elements, waves of dancers move on and off the stage in twos and threes, increasing the range and complexity of movement, and the momentum.

Act Two introduces another visual element. Stage smoke highlights light columns falling from the roof, muddying the hard lines of the floor and accentuating the irregular circles of light fall, imitating ocean waves on the floor. The dancers move in sequence now to the rhythmic beat of the music and their loud staccato footfall.

The costuming is clever. Layers of clothing appear on the dancers, becoming increasingly more formal and Western with each Act.

The programme says Waka is about exploring the idea of a raft as a metaphor for hope, drawing on the stories of the great canoe’s journey from Polynesia to Aotearoa.  Around Act 4, the verbal explanation in the programme of the point of Waka loses its grip on my psyche, while the thrill and pleasure of the dance choreography takes over. Waves of emotion and movement wash over the senses. Props are used effectively. Different elements introduced later are best left unsaid. he consistent utilization of wave elements in physical and musical form bind the wistful and aggressive cycles seamlessly. I think you should see this show for yourself. T

The last Act revisits my long lost favourite moves from the first Act. I feel replete.

 The troupe has three women; Sarah Baron, Amy Moxham and Zoe Watkins, plus Neil Ieremia, [choreographer], and four men; Thomas Fonua, Sean MacDonald, Daniel McCarroll and Carl Tolentino. They writhe and seethe, swelling together and withdrawing again as if they are 20.

The buzz of audience discussion after the show centres on the athleticism, strength and dexterity of the troupe. The men are chiseled perfection. The traditional male and female rolls of lifter and liftee exchanged freely. The women in the audience are impressed with the women dancers ability to lift the men.

Waka is a beautiful, tight, elegant show. Go.


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