Black Grace troupe reflects years of fusion and change
Fifteen years ago, the young New Zealand choreographer Neil Ieremia got a government grant and gathered a handful of dance buddies in Wellington to put on a workshop and performance.
Today, his Black Grace Dance Company is not just the country’s leading dance troupe, but an internationally acclaimed outfit known for powerfully expressive work that fuses elements of traditional Pacific Island culture with contemporary dance.
Following the company’s successful Boston debut in 2008, the Celebrity Series of Boston welcomes Black Grace’s return March 12-14 with a bill that features works from throughout the company’s history, from the signature “Minoi’’ to the new “Gathering Clouds.’’ The troupe is also at Williams College on March 2 and the University of Massachusetts Amherst on March 9.
Ieremia, born of Samoan parents and raised in New Zealand, first became interested in dance as a way to express the stories, emotions, and concerns of the contemporary Pacific Islander. “Dance is very young in New Zealand, and contemporary dance stories didn’t talk about people like me,’’ he says by phone, recalling a childhood growing up in a rough neighborhood. After a bout with rheumatic fever left his heart severely weakened (he had a valve replacement in 1999), dance was a way to prove himself in a culture in which “physicality was a passport.’’ He graduated from the Auckland Performing Arts School and performed with the Douglas Wright Dance Company before setting off on his own.
When Black Grace burst onto the scene, the troupe was hailed as a revelation. In Ieremia’s rhythmically-charged, pattern-oriented choreography, the six original male dancers embodied a breathtaking blend of virility and vulnerability, respectfully honoring the traditions and rituals of their native Pacific Island and Maori cultures while striking out in new directions with the energy, invention, and edge of contemporary dance.
Jacob’s Pillow presented the company’s sensational US debut in 2004. “I venture to say that no one in the audience had seen contemporary dance from New Zealand,’’ says Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow. “From the other side of the world, Black Grace was embraced immediately. They were powerful dancers and powerful communicators. They wanted the audience to feel included in an experience that was greater than a great dance performance.’’
But Ieremia has never been one to settle, and as the group matured, so did his choreography. “We could have kept doing a bunch of ‘Minoi’-type works and had fun,’’ he says, “but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in evolving as an artist. I have an insatiable appetite for knowledge. I don’t want to stand still.’’
He also didn’t want to be categorized as a choreographer creating works exclusively for “brown men from the South Pacific.’’ He says, “I didn’t want to be treated like a noble savage. I don’t want my work to be judged by the color of my skin or my gender.’’
Now Ieremia’s works are as apt to feature Bach and Elvis as traditional chants and slap dances, and women have become an important part of the company. “Women bring a new fresh energy that we need,’’ he says. “A lot of times, it’s just a group of men, and we can get carried away with ourselves. Women add a positive energy, a challenge, balance, encouraging us to learn. That’s been an important process for me. But the male energy is still there. It’s still very physical.’’
The company’s evolution hit a big hurdle in 2005, when the 10th-anniversary season’s international tour began to feel like the end of a cycle for Ieremia. Instead of taking time to celebrate the milestone, the company was working nonstop and beginning to fray from “the pressure of growing so far so fast,’’ the choreographer says. He believes the demands of touring changed the company’s dynamic. Problems were exacerbated by his perfectionism and exhausting participation in nearly every aspect of the company’s operation. “I just wanted to make dance,’’ he recalls, “the thing that makes me get up in the morning.’’
When the company returned to New Zealand, Black Grace fell apart amidst a rash of resignations. He used the dissolution as an opportunity to start fresh, restructuring and holding auditions for new dancers. The majority of men who auditioned didn’t meet Ieremia’s standards, so he ended up initially with a new company of 12 women, for which he choreographed an evening-length work called “Amata,’’ which means “begin’’ in Samoan. Since then, he’s found several new male dancers, and the company makeup has been more fluid. The current touring troupe features seven men and three women.
The Boston program includes two Black Grace classics from 1999. “Minoi’’ artfully integrates a traditional song in three-part harmony, slap dance, and a “Sesame Street’’ counting ditty from Ieremia’s childhood. The mesmerizing “Deep Far,’’ originally commissioned by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, is based on the cyclic nature of weather patterns. The 2003 “Surface’’ was inspired by the symbols of Samoan tattoo.
The evening’s finale consists of the opening and closing sections of Ieremia’s most recent full-evening work, “Gathering Clouds,’’ his response to an economist’s controversial article about “underachievement’’ among Polynesian people in New Zealand. What started as an “angry dance’’ about cultural collisions developed into an exploration of the values Pacific Island immigrants brought to New Zealand: extended families, the role of women, spirituality. For the final section, Ieremia says, “I intentionally wanted to use Bach, because of the long history between Samoa and Germany. And I wanted the Goldberg Variations because I feel like a variation on a Samoan. This last section is an abstraction of everything that’s gone before, but joyous. I wanted to celebrate.’’