The stage is lit, the audience waits in silent anticipation, but Wetini Mitai-Ngatai is "too old to be nervous".

As the whakaeke (entrance song) begins patu, taiaha and sweat are flown around the stage, driven by his choreography.

The Rotorua boy who found himself in the kapa haka scene at 11 has become a kapa haka performer, tutor, award winner and businessman.

Today he has been appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori performing arts.


The Rotorua Daily Post visited him at home to talk about the honour.

"I thought kapa haka was amazing to see as a kid. It was big for me, it was exciting to watch," he said.

"It's an expression of our cultural identity, that's why I love doing it.

"An expression of us as Maori, living in a contemporary society, but still retaining the aspects of tribal culture. It gives you identity, and pride, and a sense of knowing yourself."

Internationally renowned for his work in kapa haka Mitai-Ngatai has worked to revolutionise Maori performing arts.

In his dining room a bay window has become a trophy cabinet of awards, photographs, taiaha and carvings.

"You try not to win against others, but to win against yourself," he said.

"There are always elements of danger, anything can go wrong at anytime. That's the beauty of live performance."

He was involved in a number of cultural groups growing up and his first job was taking part in Rotorua cultural theatre concerts at the age of 15.

He said growing up te reo was around, but it was only being used in performances or tourism.

In 1994 he established his own group Te Mātārae i Ōrehu.

Te Mātārae i Ōrehu has consistently placed within the top six at the Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festivals since 1996 and has won twice, while Mitai-Ngatai became the first six-time recipient of the Manukura Tane male leader award.

He said what stood out in his choreography was his focus on the details.

"It's about painting a moving picture, that's what I am trying to achieve, giving the traditional a little bit of sugar and spice.

"As a leader it's about shining your light in order to let others shine, to be a leading example."

The long hours his team dedicated to training were driven by pride, he said.

"It's tribal pride, family pride, it urges people on. We stay focused on the beauty, strength, integrity, endurance, and our ancestors."

He viewed his team as "trying to reach a pinnacle of excellence" in their performance.

"What feels good and what makes other people feel good is the best indicator.

"If my own performance leaves me teary, then we've reached something that's emotional and that's kapa haka underlined, reaching emotions."

He has choreographed a range of performances at national and international levels for such events as the WOMAD World Music Tour, 2011 Rugby World Cup, 1999 World Fashion Show in Taiwan, World Expo Japan, international indigenous conferences, and Pacific Arts Festivals and in 2002 founded Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua.

A career highlight was collaborating with the New Zealand Ballet Company in 2001 to create the fusion performance Ihi Frenzy.

"Maori people are continuing to take their contribution forward into the future.

"I am trying to create a good view of Maori culture, because there is so much negativity you see out there."