The boy with fallen arches from Porirua who danced his way to international acclaim created the Black Grace dance company in 1995. Now 41, he is a past recipient of an Arts Foundation Laureate Award. The New York Times says the choreographer 'has spread his artistic roots in several rich pasts and grown up and out into a sunlight of his own making'.
What grief did the boy from Cannons Creek, Porirua, get for wanting to be a dancer?
Believe it or not, I was a real skinny kid and my sister used to call me a spoon. None of my mates really made fun of me when they found out I was into dancing because I pretended I was Bruce Lee a lot and I would kung fu their ass. When I told my parents I wanted to be a dancer, dad made his disapproving "tut-tutting" sound, shook his head, walked off and didn't talk to me again until I left for Auckland. My mother just cried. I was 19. The fatwa lasted until I got a tattoo towards the end of that year.
What is your Achilles heel?
My need to make sense of things even when they don't. Especially in an artistic sense. I like to put things in safe boxes and label them and know that they'll be just like that when I see them again. But nothing is. It causes me to disintegrate. You can spend hours teaching something and then it turns out different.
How do you cope with creative conflict? Fight or flight?
I fight. I grew up in Cannons Creek. There is no "flight" in Porirua. The nearest airport is Wellington. But the longest battles are with myself.
What has dance taught you about yourself?
That I'm vulnerable. But I'm driven. To survive in this industry, you have to be insane or driven. I like to think it's the latter.
What phrase is music to your ears?
"You wanna beer?" That is a great thing to hear.
What do you, as a choreographer, look for in a dancer?
Spunk. Someone who's got oomph about them. Characters. People who have lived. As a choreographer there is an investment you have to make because it's a relationship you have with a dancer. The ability to be part of a professional relationship. It's exciting.
What changes - what progress - have you seen and felt in New Zealand in terms of racial attitudes?
I'm a Samoan kid raised in Cannons Creek who's running a contemporary dance company. That's a change. I always come back here and think I'd be nowhere else, except here. Then you hear Michael Laws on the radio, or you catch a snippet of an interview about immigrants ... and you start wondering.
Who do you pray to?
I was raised a Baptist. I spent a lot of time in church as a kid but I don't pray so much any more - not to a conventional idea of God. I leave that to my parents, who do a lot of praying on my behalf.
Love - define what it means for you?
I'm listening to Jack White's Blunderbuss at the moment and it's such a cool album. He's so steeped in the blues. There's a song (Love Interruption) that goes, "I want love to walk right up and bite me, to grab a hold of me and fight me ..." That's what love's about - you know, you want to be pushed up against a wall or something. This is starting to sound like Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven't read that, by the way.
What does NZ need more of?
More sneaker shops and more record shops. If my mother reads this she's going to throw the Jandal at me. "How many legs have you got? How many feet have you got?" she'll say. I just threw out and gave away about 40 pairs. I have about 40 pairs left.
When are you clumsy?
I'm just clumsy at life sometimes.
What piece of music would you like to play you out when you're in that box and you've gone off to the big wherever?
Nas, Paul Weller - the Style Council album. I still have that on vinyl. It's from my teenage years. But you can't leave out Jay Zee if you have Nas. Elvis is really my brother so I'd have to have him. Then there's Warren Maxwell. Oh, it's so hard.
Black Grace presents Waka at Whangarei - Saturday; Hamilton - August 8-11, and Auckland - August 25-29 at Q Theatre.