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Pacific island passion

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
New Zealand dance company Black Grace makes its Aspen debut this week at the Aspen District Theatre, in performances presented by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. (John McDermott)
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The Black Grace Dance Company comes from a land and a culture about as far away from Aspen as one can get. The troupe was formed in New Zealand by Neil Ieremia, a graduate of the Auckland Performing Arts School, in 1995. Though he has not confined himself to traditional movement and themes, Ieremia has drawn greatly on his Samoan heritage in choreographing works for the company over the last 13 years.

Yet Aspen dance fans should find at least something familiar about Black Grace and Ieremia’s choreography. In New Zealand, a land where sports rule and the body types don’t fit the mold of the lithe dancer, Ieremia has developed a highly athletic, muscular style ” a description often applied to the local dancers of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company.

And like the local company, Black Grace has come a long way from a place not especially known for dance. After touring in the Netherlands in 2003, and making its New York debut the following year, Black Grace has earned acclaim across the globe. The troupe has made return appearances at Jacob’s Pillow, the prestigious Massachusetts festival, and have danced on stages in Japan, Mexico and across its home country.



Ieremia has long left behind the notion that a company from an outpost of the dance world can’t make an impact.

“Our stories, ideas and expression of these are just as valid and important as those from Europe and America. Why can’t a New Zealand dance company be the best in the world?” he says on the company’s website.




Black Grace makes its local debut with performances presented by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet on Friday and Saturday, March 28-29, at the Aspen District Theatre. The program features works, all by Ieremia, who serves as artistic director of the company, set to music by Bach, the Afro-Celtic Sound System, jazz drummer Chico Hamilton and traditional Samoan tunes.

The Aspen Times interviewed Ieremia via e-mail.

Q: Americans don’t have many associations with New Zealand culture. Are there any preconceptions about New Zealand that Black Grace has to contend with in the U.S.?

A: There have been confusions over the different cultures prominent in New Zealand from which I draw on: Pacific Island (Samoan) and Maori. This is one of the great things about being able to share my work internationally as we are able to inform different cultures and nations about our people and stories.

Q: You were born of Samoan heritage, and have formed a company based in Maori culture. Has dance traditionally been a significant part of those cultures? What have you drawn from those two separate backgrounds?

A: Black Grace is not based on Maori culture. My work is heavily influenced by my Samoan heritage, in the movement, concepts and rhythms ” although I do not let this restrict my creativity. I have drawn on my Samoan culture and built Black Grace on three key Samoan principles: Fa’amaoni (integrity, honesty and pride), Fa’amalosi/Loto Tele (perseverance and determination) and Fa’aloalo (humility and respect). I aim to use these qualities with my work and company.

Q: Are there other significant influences, aside from the South Pacific, on your work?

A: I am influenced by past choreographers I have worked with, music, paintings, poems, the landscape and culture of New Zealand ” a whole range of things.

Q: Black Grace began as an all-male company, and now performs with female guest dancers. Has there been a change in your approach to choreography or philosophy behind incorporating female dancers?

A: Up until 2002 Black Grace was strictly a male company. After working with men for seven years I was ready for a new challenge artistically. Bringing female dancers into the company has expanded choreographic and conceptual options ” it has been a challenge, but one that I welcomed and have thoroughly enjoyed.

Q: The program in Aspen includes dances performed to music from hip-hop to traditional Maori songs to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. You seem to be aiming for versatility in your choreography.

A: I love music and like to listen to a range of genres. I don’t like to remain in the same place or to be safe with my choreography ” I find that boring. Therefore, using different music comes naturally as I like to branch out and explore new territories.

Q: The dancers in Black Grace have mostly come from athletic backgrounds. Was it difficult to persuade them to give up the ball field for the dance stage?

A: My choreography is extremely physical and has been described as “athletic.” Our training differs from typical dance companies in that we incorporate many diverse forms and techniques. One morning we might do a classical barre and the next we will go to the local park for fitness sessions and a game of rugby. Being a full-time professional dancer is a huge commitment, a life choice. I don’t believe you can persuade anyone to do it ” they must want it for themselves. As a company we have a great time, and having members from assorted backgrounds keeps it interesting and is great creatively as everyone has something different to offer.

Q: Black Grace performs all over the world, but also extensively near home. Is there a particular devotion to performing for New Zealand audiences ” that is, is there something you want to communicate to your own people? And is it very different performing in New Zealand and abroad?

A: New Zealand has supported Black Grace over the last 13 years and there’s nothing like performing for your people. The themes of the work along with music and movement motifs are recognizable to New Zealanders as my work ultimately speaks about our stories from Aotearoa, New Zealand. I find that internationally the works are appreciated for their originality ” it is amazing to be able to communicate to different cultures around the work through my choreography.

Q: When did you discover your desire to dance, and what motivated you to form Black Grace? Were there other companies doing anything similar to what Black Grace does?

A: I have always felt compelled to move, although it wasn’t until my late teens that I participated in a dance class when I attended the Auckland Performing Arts School. In 1995, when Black Grace was formed, there were few males dancing professionally in New Zealand. I decided to apply for funding and create a work with friends and fellow male dancers. I wanted it to be all-male, as that is what I felt most comfortable with ” the male body was what I was familiar with.

stewart@aspentimes.com