Black Grace redefines modern

Last night, Neil Ieremia’s modern dance company, Black Grace, performed at the ’62 Center’s MainStage as part of its latest U.S. tour. The company takes pride in its energetic performance, which includes stomping and vocals. Not just another contemporary dance company, Black Grace explores physical expression through Ieremia’s unique background. In Ieremia’s words, “Black Grace is me.” This past Monday, Ieremia spoke about his experiences with the politics of performance at a panel moderated by Arif Smith, assistant director of the Multicultural Center.

Growing up northeast of Wellington in Cannon’s Creek, Neil Ieremia’s path to dance school and then to becoming one of New Zealand’s leading choreographers was far from an obvious one. In his lower-income neighborhood of mainly Pacific Islanders, employment at the local Mitsubishi plant was so common that Ieremia and his friends called it their “university,” because the only other clear choices after high school were welfare and jail.

A particularly unique problem affecting the Samoan community was the decline of the tradition of freely giving and receiving within the community. In the past 50 years, more people have been pocketing money, charities from back home have become more demanding and there has been less reciprocity within the community. A reluctance to talk about this problem has led parents to work multiple jobs and families to sacrifice comfort and sustenance before giving up the appearance of generosity. Ieremia recalls seeing friends come into school without shoes because their families would rather deprive themselves than appear selfish. He believes these deprivations naturally teach young people to resent their culture and their parents.

Unhappy with this system, Ieremia’s parents took steps to protect him and his four siblings from it, most notably, according to Ieremia, by attending a white Baptist church. Although somewhat distant from the Pacific Islander community, Ieremia still had a strong interest in his native culture and started a dance group at his church when he was 13. “From there, the thing just sort of grew and grew and grew,” Ieremia said. He eventually had the chance to choreograph a piece at the national level, which led to a scholarship at the Auckland Performing Arts School. After graduation Ieremia worked with several dance companies and choreographers, whom he described as “great” and “talented” but “not relevant to me.” After vocalizing his opinions, Ieremia said, he reached a “put up or shut up” moment. Others, frustrated with his criticism, asked him why he didn’t just start his own company – so he decided to do just that.

The company’s name, “Black Grace” comes from the slang Ieremia and his friends used back in high school. “Black” means cool, courageous and brave. New Zealand’s rugby team, for example, is called the “All Blacks.” “Grace,” on the other hand, is an essential quality towards which he believes dancers must strive. This aspiration was especially true for what was initially an all-male troupe, considering society’s conceptions of men as less graceful.

During a panel discussion on campus on Monday, Ieremia discussed how many people in Cannon’s Creek commit a “fallacy of halves,” believing they are half Pacific Islander and half New Zealander, and therefore fated to never belong in either community. Acknowledging the impact these identity questions have had on his work, Ieremia spoke of the “need to transcend imposed stereotypes that don’t allow us to move beyond certain limits.” Reaching beyond a mash-up of traditional Samoan and contemporary dance, the choreography of Black Grace stems from an effort to kinetically articulate the experience of carrying multiple identities, both personal and collective, at once.

His choreography drew skeptical reactions from the start, beginning with his home in New Zealand. Within the Samoan community, there existed already a conversation about whether Ieremia’s “traditional” choreography could, in fact, qualify as pure. Some of the community members involved in this conversation reacted negatively to what they perceived as further corruption of their culture. Ieremia chalked this up to misunderstanding of his mission. “I don’t do traditional Samoan dance; I do contemporary dance,” he said. Over the past 15 years, the company has continued to thrive, surviving near-closure in 2006. It is now the only organization in New Zealand to receive regular funding for operations as a dance performance company and has been featured in the PBS documentary, “Black Grace: From Cannon’s Creek to Jacob’s Pillow.”

According to Ieremia, the group’s 2004 invitation to Jacob’s Pillow (which was the dance company’s first appearance in the United States) opened up to the American market to Black Grace. After that appearance, the company signed a contract with Rena Shagan, the agent for several prestigious American dance companies including the Martha Graham Dance Company, and has performed across the country. “We’ve had a great response here,” Ieremia said in an interview following the panel. “People are very open and honest with their reactions and when they like the performances, they are very willing to show their enthusiasm.” Ieremia saluted the United States as an exciting place to perform because of its rich dance tradition, calling the country “the birthplace of modern dance” and expressing his hope that his company will continue to tour here in the future.