Neil Ieremia of Black Grace and Lemi Ponifasio of Mau, who are both presenting new works in the opening week of the Auckland Festival, have some things in common - beyond their Samoan roots. Each heads one of the country's most successful contemporary dance companies.

Home audiences for Mau's avant garde rituals have been whittled and honed over time by his bizarre and bloody, confrontational yet mystically powerful political visions, to those who have a sustained taste for the intensely deep and meaningful.

But his reputation and calculated controversy rate highly overseas, through his regular presence at major international arts events and venues, including the Lincoln Centre in New York, Vienna Festival, Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Holland Festival, Venice Biennale, London International Theatre Festival, Theatre Der Velt, Adelaide Festival and the Prague Quadrennial.

Ieremia and his Black Grace, rising like the proverbial phoenix from the wreckage of its former manifestation, funding intact, makes regular, ever-popular grassroots tours at home, and packed out 2500-seat venues in the United States, on both pre- and post-apocalypse tours.

Most fantastic of all its recent successes, to Ieremia, was last year's appearance at Australian music festival Womadelaide. Ieremia was expecting an audience of a couple of hundred, and was nervous about being allocated the festival's second-largest stage. But 6000 watched, silent and intent, on the first night, erupting simultaneously to their feet at the end to yell their approval. Word went around and there was another audience of 6000 the second night and a second ovation.

Both men exhibit a natural concern with Pacific Island issues and Mau, in particular, spends considerable time working with Pacific communities.

Ponifasio was born in Lano, Samoa, to a staunch Catholic family, and his haunting imagery springs from both religious ritual and the primal mythology of the Ao and the Po, the poles of the original Polynesian universe.

Ieremia is more concerned with the lot of the Pacific Island people at home in New Zealand.

The way they work could not be more different. A fortnight out from opening night, Ieremia has "almost finished" his spectacular new work Gathering Clouds. The dancers, six men this time and three girls, have been in the studio full-time for six weeks and the work looks, even in rehearsal, as good as Black Grace has ever been, maybe better.

Research began in July last year, with an analysis of Pacific Islanders' appearance in the media; ruminations of why they are so good at sport; a marathon of watching Bro'Town; a delving into the dawn raids - thwarted somewhat, says Ieremia, because a lot of books and archives concerning that period are restricted, unavailable, out of print, lost.

The catalyst for making Gathering Clouds was the much-publicised - and since discredited - claim of economist Greg Clydesdale that Polynesians display "significant and enduring underachievement" made worse by immigration.

But as the initial hurt and anger subsided - Ieremia says his father was so upset by the report that he was literally speechless - the need for a furious retort became less appealing. Some early Auckland Festival promotional material reflects the heat of the early weeks on the project, he says.

"But I realised, seeing the level of pain, that I needed to make a more conciliatory work, to add something beautiful to the mix. To stage a more passive resistance ..."

Gathering Clouds is structured in three sections: the first, with traditional Tongan drums and song and a selection of hymns recorded by Ieremia's family and friends, shows a people preparing for a journey to another land and the passing down of precious cultural traditions.

The second section is set in New Zealand, circa 1970, the era of the dawn raids, inspired by a book of Marti Friedlander photographs titled Larks in Paradise, nostalgic with images of an older and gentler New Zealand, featuring the music of that "great Samoan, Elvis Presley" before the bleak and violent advent of the raids, to Suspicious Minds.

The third section is titled To Keep Honour Bright, Ieremia's abstract summation, including a traditional slapdance, all set to Bach's Goldberg Variations.

"The point of the work is to give hope in this tough economic time. Race relations have taken a hammering and the subtext is still not good. So hope and peace - I want to enjoy it, I want the company to enjoy it and for the people to enjoy it!"

Out west, in the same week, at Mau's cavernous, existential base in the Corban Estate Arts Centre, Lemi Ponifasio is preparing in a very different way for the premiere of Tempest: Without a Body, the final in his Tempest series. In its previous incarnation, Tempest featured then-incarcerated refugee Ahmed Zaoui and live oratory from Maori activist Tame Iti. With Zaoui's release and Iti's arrest, the work has moved on.

Now Ponifasio is making thought paintings of the state of the post-9/11 world. The image is vivid - a Paul Klee painting named Angelus Novus, depicting an angel, his back to the future, gazing at history and the destruction taking place, but unable to move as the force of those cold winds fix his wings to his back. He is in a state of shocked paralysis.

And so, posits Ponifasio, are we: terrorised by the war on a faceless terror.

We have been taught to feel incapable of effecting change, so we are frozen in apathy. In the theatre of Mau, Ponifasio hopes to ignite a response. He would rather people left in high huff, than remained, merely entertained.

Ponifasio doesn't so much make art as live art. He hasn't had a "rehearsal" for Tempest: Without a Body yet. Maybe Tame Iti will be there on the night, maybe not.

"Art that is finished becomes an object. It is no longer art," Ponifasio says. "This art is about the reality of people's lives."

Auckland Festival
What: Gathering Clouds, with Black Grace
Where and when: The Civic, March 5-8
Also at: TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre, Manukau, April 16-17; The Centre, Kerikeri, April 22-23; Clarence St Theatre, Hamilton, April 29-May 2
On the web:
What: Tempest: Without a Body, with Mau
Where and when: Aotea Centre, March 5;
Also at: MauForum, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, daily events to March 21
On the web: