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Bernadette Rae talks to Black Grace's Zoe Watkins about the evolution of the company's latest production

In three years with Black Grace, dancer Zoe Watkins has performed in North America, Hawaii, Guam, Switzerland, Korea and, in March this year, a 12-centre tour of Germany. Included in the German performances was a 35-minute version of artistic director Neil Ieremia's new creation, Waka, a work that explores the idea of a raft as a metaphor for hope. The piece was also performed in May at the Busan International Dance Festival in Korea, alongside repertoire piece Amata.

A full-length version debuts in four North Island centres, through August.

Set to a mix of New Zealand music by Porirua harpist Natalia Mann, Salmonella Dub and Fat Freddy's Drop, the work is inspired in part by Bill Viola's frightening video installation, titled The Raft, in which a group of people waiting at a bus stop are suddenly blasted by high-pressure waves of water and struggle for endless minutes against the torrent. It also responds to the painting The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand by Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie and to Theodore Gericault's famous The Raft of the Medusa, which depicts all the terror of a shipwreck.


"In the beginning Neil kept a lot of those concepts close to his chest," says Watkins of Black Grace's collaborative creative process, which included a five-week development period before the German tour, and another five weeks post-Korea to expand the work.

"He gave us related words and tasks, and all the dancers had to come up with our own ideas around the concept of a raft as hope. Different people have different 'rafts' and use them in different ways. You have to draw on your own experiences. We all have different upbringings that shape our ideas, we form different relationships - we all have different experiences of our life being in danger."

The result is "very physical - but that is a given for Neil and for Black Grace", she says.

German reviews spoke of "technical finesse of almost archaic rawness" and "a powerful demonstration of strength and battle readiness".

That strength and powerful physicality is a challenge that Watkins revels in. "I love it," she says. "You are constantly pushed to the max creatively and physically. The steps are hard and you have to work extremely hard. The whole environment here challenges you to be the very best you can possibly be."

To balance all that challenge is the huge opportunity that Black Grace offers its small core, including Watkins, of senior dancers. While everyone starts on a contract for a specific project, Watkins is one of three who have permanent status.

"This is a proper job," she says of her tenure with Black Grace, with considerable glee. "I never thought, as a teenager, that dance in New Zealand could offer that - I work 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. I get holiday and sick pay. And I don't have to wait tables in between."

Watkins graduated from the New Zealand School of Dance in 2005 and worked as a freelance artist, with a long association with Ann Dewey's Spinning Sun before joining Black Grace in 2009. The 27-year-old was struck by the number of teenagers in the full houses their performances drew on the recent German foray.

"The arts are huge there," she says.

"Young people go to the theatre or the opera or to a dance performance every Friday night. It is important to them and to their culture. We are such a young country ..."

What: Waka with Black Grace dance company
Where and when: Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, Wellington, to July 31
Forum North, Whangarei, August 4
WEL Trust Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton, August 8-11
Maidment Theatre, Auckland, August 25-29