The Maori artistic director and entrepreneur Te Rangi Huata found his vocation as a schoolboy, when he was invited to join an international show called 'Song of Asia'. The show, inspired by the ideas of Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change), toured the world and Huata became its assistant director.
In Calcutta, 'Song of Asia' performed for the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Theresa said: 'Your work and our work are the same; we are rubbing and scrubbing and you are singing and dancing.'
I asked Huata whether travelling with 'Song of Asia' inspired him in his theatrical work with indigenous tribal groups. He answered by recalling a challenge put to the show's cast by Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi: 'There are two types of people in the world, heaters and thermometers - those who change the temperature and those who change with the temperature!'
Several years after leaving 'Song of Asia', Huata began working with his brother Tama Huata, who had founded the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre. Kahurangi, which means 'cloak of heaven', was and is an innovative approach to creating cultural, spiritual, educational and employment opportunities for young Maori. 'We take young people who have dropped out of school, unemployed people, people from prison and we teach them traditional songs and dances,' says Huata. 'When you can get someone right culturally, a lot of by-products stem from that.'
Kahurangi is endorsed as a 'House of Learning' by the Ngati Kahungunu, the fourth largest Maori tribe, and is contracted by its Elders to produce the tribe's New Year, or Matariki, celebrations.
In recent times most Maori had stopped paying much attention to Matariki, Huata told me. 'Now 100 communities have picked up on celebrating Maori New Year - and everyone is aware of it. Sixty per cent of attendees are non-Maori. This is bringing New Zealanders together - and that is my aim: building community through the arts.'
Twenty years after its inception, Kahurangi is New Zealand's best known, and only full-time, Maori dance company. It has a permanent branch in Canada, features regularly at international cultural festivals, receives 80 per cent of its income from performances (of which it does 400 annually) and has seen 300 young people graduate from its programme.
By Alan Channer