STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Exploring sensitive topics and world cultures, and expressing individuality — that’s what the contemporary dance group Black Grace is all about. And they’re coming all the way from New Zealand to share their time, talent, and thoughts through movement with Philadelphia-area audiences.
The program, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, features material spanning nearly 20 years of the group’s history — four short pieces and a longer work. Founder, artistic director, and choreographer Neil Ieremia said in an email interview that his work is “full of energy, rhythm and physicality, imbued with a strong Pacific sense of spirituality, pride, and humor.”
The main work the company will perform is “Gathering Clouds.” That piece is a response to an academic paper released to the media in 2008 that made claims about the so-called negative impact of Pacific Island migration on the New Zealand economy, Ieremia said.
“The process was very organic: it started from outrage, frustration, and ultimately pain,” he said.
Once the initial shock subsided, he said, the group looked at the claims closely and researched them in depth. Along they way, they discovered “trails of interest” and decided to follow them. These included the introduction of Christianity to the Pacific Islands, the dawn police raids (executed during the early 1970s to catch Pacific Islanders who overstayed their visas in New Zealand), and the impact of pop culture icons such as Bruce Lee and Elvis Presley on Pacific Island culture, he said.
And now, the movements create art for audiences to view, engage with, digest, and interpret.
Using dance to process his world and make a living wasn’t always the plan for Ieremia. He didn’t focus on dance until he was 19 when, with no formal training, he resigned from his banking job, left home, and enrolled in a full-time dance program. As his schooling ended, he joined the Douglas Wright Dance Company, then worked as a freelance choreographer. In 1995, he founded Black Grace with ten male dancers of Pacific, Maori, and New Zealand heritage.
It was an easy decision, until it wasn’t.
“Dance is my chosen form of expression and I’ve been practicing it for the majority of my life,” he said. “By the time I had discovered it was one of the most difficult and challenging of the performing arts to be involved in, it was already too late to change course.”
The course, though, has taken him around the world with his company. He’s happy that he has been able to do that, but mostly, he appreciates that dance lets him be himself.
“My work is a reflection of who I am,” he said. “Who I am is a reflection of my experiences, my environment, my culture, and genetics.”
Ieremia is one-quarter Chinese and was teased as a child for having “Chinese eyes,” he said. That would make him feel bad. Then, Bruce Lee rose to fame in the 1970s, followed by a plethora of old-school Kung Fu movies.
“This changed the way people treated me,” he said, “and made being Asian, or at least part Asian, somewhat cool and mysterious.”
Ieremia embraces various ethnicities and cultures through his company, his works, and his movement. And the world has responded by inviting Black Grace to perform around the globe. They look forward to returning to America, with stops in New York, California, and Louisiana, in addition to their performances at Annenberg on Feb. 12-14.
Through dance, Ieremia encourages people to experience other cultures and contemporary movement. He thinks the arts allow people to think, to feel, and ultimately to determine their own meaning of what they experience.
“The Arts are as important to humanity as a man digging a ditch,” he said. “It is the interpretation of that action and the usefulness of that ditch that ultimately decides its true worth.”
IF YOU GO
What: Black Grace
When: Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12; 8 p.m. Feb. 13; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 14.
Where: Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St., Philadelphia.
Info.: Call (215) 898-3900 or visit www.annenbergcenter.org/event/black-grace. For more about the dance company, check http://www.blackgrace.co.nz/