Black Grace and Neil Ieremia: A Graceful Partnership

Photo of Lucy Freeland
28 November 2016

The spirit of New Zealand bursts into life through the performances of Pacific contemporary dance company Black Grace. With the winning combination of exceptional talent, powerful storytelling and the innovative vision of artistic director and founder Neil Ieremia, their choreography transcends all barriers.

Courtesy Black Grace

Neil Ieremia has long been hailed one of New Zealand’s most important creative minds, devising outstanding choreography that engages with the desires of the audience whilst simultaneously challenging preconceptions of dancing and performance.

Born in Wellington with a Samoan heritage, the working-class surroundings in which Ieremia spent his formative years produced many budding sportsmen but precious few artists. Ieremia soon became more than accustomed to working against the grain, and at the age of 19, enrolled full-time in a dance and movement programme at the Auckland Performing Arts School.

Despite this bold decision being met with hostility from family and friends, Ieremia’s gamble paid off and in his final year of training, he was invited to join the first-class Douglas Wright Dance Company. Finally finding himself able to explore the freedom of expression, Ieremia remained with the Douglas Wright group until 1996, simultaneously seizing the opportunity, as a freelance dancer, to work under the direction of other acclaimed New Zealand choreographers and even commission works of his own.

© Courtesy Black Grace

Perhaps due to this unconventional start, Ieremia still longed for a mode of movement that prioritised the depiction of different perspectives and thrust forth a fresh look. In 1995, he founded Black Grace, comprising of ten male dancers of Maori, New Zealand and Pacific Island heritage. According to Ieremia, the term black in the company name refers to courage in the New Zealand argot of the 1980s and grace a central quality that Ieremia admires and strives for in both himself and in his dancers. From humble beginnings as one man’s vision and aspiration, Black Grace is now sitting pretty as one of the most respected, brave and iconic cultural brands, recognisable across New Zealand and beyond.

Today, Ieremia is still at the helm of Black Grace, scooping up a 2005 Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award, the Paul D. Fleck Fellowship in the Arts from the Banff Centre, Canada, achieving sell-out performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and touring internationally with Black Grace and across the length and breadth of New Zealand.

© Courtesy Black Grace

The basis of Ieremia’s dynamic choreography lies in the story-telling traditions of the South Pacific, at times incorporating aspects of Samoan tradition; singing and slap dance (fa’ataupati). This is deeply reminiscent of Samoan indigenous dancing and is conducted to the melody of everything from recreated traditional music to Bach, hip-hop and everything in between. As well as challenging the preconceived notions of traditional movement and music, Ieremia draws the set choreography not only out of his own mind, but at times from the mind of the performer through creative exercises.

His 2010 work Who Are You? created with Black Grace’s youth company, UrbanYOUTHMovement, was the perfect example of this collaborative effort. As Ieremia himself explained, “I told these young people that my perception of their generation is that they binge drink, are impatient and want everything now. They are unable to make a lasting commitment, are generally lazy and wouldn’t know what a hard day’s work was if it kicked them in the backside. Then I told them to prove me wrong” – and so Who Are You? was born. Together with the Black Grace company, talented young dancers between the ages of 16 and 21 were taken through a demanding and often transformative creative process to express themselves, their fears, concerns and desires.

© Courtesy Black Grace

Neil Ieremia and Black Grace continue to push the boundaries of contemporary dance, encouraging an exploration of the body and its subtle movements, moving towards instinctive choreography rather than overly prescriptive instruction. With inspiration, fervour and raw talent, Ieremia endeavours to bring dynamism back to the stage, concentrating on form and vitality as the primary method of expressing emotion and the human spirit.

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