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Born in New Zealand and of Samoan heritage, choreographer Neil Ieremia has developed a powerful movement aesthetic and a sensitive, yet fearless approach to confront societal issues through dance. ICONS spoke with Neil about his philosophy, artistic identity and vision for leading his own company, Black Grace, which tours North America this fall.
ICONS: Growing up, did you envision a future for yourself as a choreographer?
Neil Ieremia: Certainly not. I grew up in a tough neighborhood of Porirua, one of the poorest cities in New Zealand. It was a community of largely migrant families and Pacific Island families. The connection to the outside world was very limited. There was no internet and we only had two television channels back then, so we had very little exposure to western or European dance. We instead were concerned with cultural dance and dance from the Pacific Islands.
In Porirua, we were all expected to graduate high school and go directly to work in the local factory. In fact, we used to call the local factory our university. I actually wanted to be the Mayor of Porirua, marry my childhood sweetheart, and have eight children (laughing)! That was the extent of my vision for life at that point. So, no, I never expected I’d become a choreographer.
ICONS: When did you make your first choreographic work?
NI: As young kids we found a lot of comfort and shelter in our local church. It was there that I made my first dance. My sister, who was the youth group leader, noticed that I’d been mucking around with music and movement and asked me to make a dance. So the first dance I made was to an Amy Grant song when I was 13! I thought people would make fun of it, but they actually really liked it.
ICONS: Your first job was in banking. How did you make the switch into professional dance?
NI: After high school, I took the first job I was offered, which was at a local bank. I started as a bank teller but was fortunate enough to receive additional training and I ended up in operations and credit.
At the same time I was still making dance at the local church. I was approached to choreograph a piece for the 1989 Commonwealth Games. The idea was to bring kids from all of the Commonwealth to tour New Zealand and present snippets from their own cultures. So after banking hours and on weekends, I worked really hard to choreograph a piece. But they didn’t like it, so they brought in a professional choreographer.
That choreographer actually offered me a job on her choreographic team. As part of that team, I learned a great deal. I went on tour and saw a performance by members of Limbs Dance Company, which was the national contemporary company for the first time. I'd never seen anything like it and that really inspired me.
Later, I was offered a spot at the Auckland Performing Arts School. That is where I really got into dance; I was 19 and I did my first ballet and contemporary classes.
ICONS: What do you consider to be the greatest influences on your work?
NI: I think probably the biggest influence over the years has been this notion of trying to find a source of cultural belonging.
I was born in New Zealand, but my parents migrated here in the 60s. Therefore I never feel quite at home anywhere. I’m trying to understand what my cultural heritage means, being in this unusual space - not quite Samoan but also not quite a New Zealander. I’m looking at how the cultures come together and where I belong in that dialogue.
ICONS: How do you approach identity and that ‘unusual space’ in your work?
NI: It’s an ongoing challenge. When I make work that utilizes traditional elements there is always a pocket of the Pacific community that will claim it is traditional dance. At the same time when I ventured more into the western side of dance there are people who say I should stay in my lane.I got to a point in 2002 when I made a work called Surface, which was about my father's journey to get his traditional Samoan tattoo.
He was 66 at the time and the tattoo is something that young men get as a rite of passage in their late teens. The fact that he was rediscovering his own culture and felt the need to honor that cultural tradition at his age really inspired me. At that point I became a little bit more accepting of the fact that I have all of these different cultural components that reside within me.
ICONS: How do your cultural values influence your process?
NI: The cultural philosophy behind my work is implicit to the choreographic process.
I don't feel like I can make work in an environment that's not clean. I don't mean physically clean, but where it's clear. In Samoan we have a saying ‘the sky is clear, and the environment is clean.’
There are some words in our culture that are important to us. One of them is Fa’amaoni, which speaks about integrity and honesty within yourself. So approaching something with Fa’amaoni is giving it your very best.
Another one is Fa’aloalo, which speaks about a sense of humility. Having humility in the process is very important. Respect is integral to our heritage, respect for your elders, understanding, and real generosity.
Then Fa’amalosi, which talks about this concept of always having a world beyond reproach and being really strong of spirit and not giving up. It's about determination. If you're watching a game of rugby with Samoans, you will undoubtedly hear someone say Fa’amalosi! Be strong! Keep going!
So those basic values are hung on that idea that life is art and art is life. Because in our culture we never differentiate, it’s one in the same.
ICONS: How would you describe your company, Black Grace?
NI: Black Grace is resilience. We are resilient and we are compassionate.
I've never assumed it’s my right to be doing what I'm doing. I understand that I could be working at a factory right now. Instead I have the privilege of being able to express myself on a daily basis and to be able to present those ideas. It’s an enormous privilege and I never ever forget that.
ICONS: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as Director of Black Grace?
NI: There have been numerous challenges, but I think probably the single biggest challenge, especially in 1995 when I started the company, was the institutionalized racism in dance. I was the wrong person, in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the right time.
I’ve had to put up with a lot of people's perceptions about what we can and can't do. But I take great pride in being the only dance company included in New Zealand’s nationally funded leadership portfolio along with the opera and orchestras. We’ve worked really long and hard to be here and to stay here.
That's also why we do so much outreach work. We've created a business model here that we're extremely proud of. We can tour internationally and work in the local community.
Tomorrow we're driving out to one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country to work with a high school. Last year we put on a free festival where we commissioned Pacific Island artists from different disciplines to create works on the dancers at Black Grace.
That's what I believe the work is about. I’m playing the long game. It’s about wanting the next generation to be proud of the trail you blazed.
ICONS: How do you confront social issues through dance?
NI: The first work I made for Black Grace was about the story of men wanting to dance in New Zealand. It was also my own personal story.
Six months later I made a piece called Relentless. It was a response to a young boy who was beaten to death by his father after he went to a school dance. That really shocked me because it was the kind of thing that happened in my neighborhood all the time. Many of the male dancers in Black Grace had experienced different aspects of that kind of abuse, so I wanted to bring that out. But when I did, people criticized the work saying, “You're not supposed to do things like that; you're supposed to do happy dancing.”
That really annoyed me actually. When people tell me I’m not going to be able to achieve something that just emboldens me to keep going. I certainly pressed on and looked deeper into my culture and to aspects of darkness that I found within myself as a result of my heritage.
ICONS: Where does your creative process start?
NI: I like to collect physical objects and I like to collect moments too. If something moves me in a particular way, I'll collect that somehow. I’ll often sit with an idea for years. Once I begin to look deeper, researching in a variety of directions, I'll cast the net wide. Eventually it will begin to touch a subject that I've been thinking about over time and then - away we go. I'll stop really pointing the focus at that particular idea and instead work to develop it.
ICONS: From where do you derive your movement?
NI: For a long time I would try and refine even the simplest movements down. I'd spend hours working on an arm or shoulder gesture and it was really taxing and labor intensive. I was particularly critical of the people in the studio, and it would never make me happy. Creating the movement for me was a really harrowing experience for a long time because I was so judgmental of myself.
In the past years I’ve changed my process. Now I work on saturating the idea through research and contemplation. Once I get into the studio, I try to remain as open as I can to the movement. I will begin moving and am not as judgmental - I won't censor things and I'll just move. Then I'll begin to teach that material to the company. This has been much more fun for everyone and I think the work is better too.
ICONS: How do you view the dancers in relation to your creative process?
NI: I really value honesty in the creative process. I value directness and hard work and I expect that from the people who work with me. I really dislike pretense. You are who you are.
In the creative process I want the responses to be what they are - from real people. So that limits a lot of dancers in terms of working with me because I like to dig really deep.
At Black Grace we sit down and eat together, we share food, everyone pitches in and works. We sing together. We laugh a lot and from time to time we cry together. It’s the Fa’aloalo - we really care about what happens to people. We don’t become someone different when we leave the studio.
ICONS: What advice would you give to the upcoming generation of choreographers?
NI: You need to be really strong and always appreciate that as artists we have the ability to create some amazing moments in life. Not only for the audience but for the people who work with us. Some people will only ever see one way to get there. But there are many ways. There are new ways that haven't even been discovered yet. I believe if you are open, strong and you believe in what you're doing, and your intention is not to hurt other people but to do something, that can become a legacy - then GO! Absolutely go for it.
More about Neil Ieremia:
Neil Ieremia was born in Wellington, New Zealand in a country focused more on sporting prowess and agriculture than creative expression. At the age of 19, and with no formal training, Neil enrolled in a full-time dance program. In his final year of training, he joined the Douglas Wright Dance Company and danced with the company until 1996. As a freelance professional dancer, Neil also worked with many other leading New Zealand choreographers, as well as creating a number of commissioned works.
Motivated to provide a fresh voice in dance, Neil founded his own company, Black Grace, in 1995, with ten male dancers of Pacific, Maori and New Zealand heritage. Black Grace tours the length and breadth of New Zealand. Internationally, Neil’s work has been presented in Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Caledonia, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States of America.
Neil’s numerous ‘firsts’ for a New Zealand choreographer include sell-out performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, USA; a four-week season on New York City’s 42nd Street; performances at the renowned Cervantino Festival in Mexico; the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver. Among his many awards and achievements, most recently Neil was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to dance.
Black Grace will tour North America in the fall of 2019. For dates and locations, visit:
Neil Ieremia Headshot
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