Neil Ieremia Photo Kristian Frires

Neil Ieremia
Photo Kristian Frires

The Royal New Zealand Ballet make a welcome return to London later this month with a short season at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House. On the programme is Passchendaele by Neil Ieremia, artistic director of Auckland-based Black Grace, who were one of the ‘must-see’ dance shows of the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. Maggie Foyer recently caught up with Ieremia to talk about his background and his work. 

Neil Ieremia is a success story with very unlikely beginnings. A choreographer of Western Samoan heritage he only started his dance training at the advanced age of 19. Black Grace, the dance company that he created and directs, is currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

Highly articulate, charming and with obvious talents, his career trajectory is an extraordinary mix of circumstances. He was born in Cannon’s Creek, a factory town north of Wellington on the North Island. In his words, it was “a tough neighbourhood where men didn’t dance. But storytelling, song and dance are very much part of our culture and every night I was at the Youth Group making up dances.”

“It was in the early 80s, pop videos were the rage and I was a victim. I was a huge fan of music. I played guitar, drums, bass and I started teaching myself piano. I was interested in everything but it was the dance that stuck with me.”

Ieremia still didn’t realise that there could be a career in dance and at 17 he joined a bank. However at nineteen he was offered the chance to train professionally and he joined the Auckland Performing Arts School. Into his second year he was offered work with the prestigious Douglas Wright Dance Company. Over the next few years he was in continual employment and worked with many local choreographers and companies.

Then in 1995 he took the plunge and launched his own company. It was a company with a mission. “I saw in my community people who were more talented than me, who could do a number of things but all ended up in factories on a downward spiral. I wanted with Black Grace to provide a platform for young men like me to come and explore a new avenue, things we didn’t think were open to us. Dance was the domain of Europeans and quite wealthy families. I also wanted to tell the stories my parents had told me – but through dance.

“My first piece of dance was about growing up in this specific NZ Pacific Island household in a community where people didn’t value dance – certainly not over rugby! And I did it in a more contemporary way. While I loved all the traditional motifs and patterns, I didn’t want a cultural dance company. I trained in contemporary dance and I wanted to develop a voice and a technique that was specific to this part of the world without it being exclusive.”

Black Grace in Minoi by Neil Ieremia Photo Simon Wilson

Black Grace in Minoi by Neil Ieremia
Photo Simon Wilson

Funding didn’t come easy. “We got an initial grant which paid for ten dancers for four and a half weeks nothing more. But God moves in mysterious ways and I was lucky enough to have worked in a bank. At the bank they were grooming me to be a team leader and I was moved around the entire operation from retail, through operations, to credit, so I knew a lot. I also knew how to tie a Windsor knot, to massage my cuticles and shake hands the right way!”

Black Grace obtained funding from the Creative New Zealand scheme but rather than apply to the special pot for Maori and Pacific Island projects, he chose the main pool. “I wanted to be measured on the work, the performance and not to put our skin first.”

The company was invited to the Jacob’s Pillow Festival in 2004. “We played at the Doris Duke theatre and sold out. We were invited back the next year where we performed at the Ted Shawn Theatre and that sold out too. So that was our entry into the USA and we have an agent there now. You can be the best thing since sliced bread in New Zealand but you don’t feel
validated without overseas recognition; so this is great.”

The company still makes annual visits to the States and tours extensively in Australia as well as in their home country. They have performed at the Holland Dance Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but this will be the first time Ieremia’s work has been seen in London.

Initially an all-male company, Black Grace opened to women in 2002. “Having some very good young women in the company changed the possibilities and creativity, they offered so much more. Men come to training late and the women often had early ballet training and having that to work with as a choreographer really opened things up.”

Ieremia now gets applications from dancers all over the world. “I am very specific about whether the dancer can contribute positively and receive positively in the studio. I must feel I can trust people because we are here to serve the work. The work has its own life and as dancers and practitioners we breathe life into it. The quality of that life depends on us and it is very important to me that we are honourable to that.”

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele Photo Ellie Richards

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele
Photo Ellie Richards

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele Photo Ellie Richards

The Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele
Photo Ellie Richards

Passchendaele was Ieremia’s second commission from RNZB. He was also given the theme and the music, a short piece by Warrant Officer Dwayne Bloomfield. “I took a wee while to think about it. War is not something I am interested in but I spoke to a few trusted people and they encouraged me to challenge myself. Outside commissions have not always been great experiences but I am glad I took this opportunity.” How did the dancers cope with his style? “They grabbed it with both arms and gave it a nudge, as we say down here! And I really valued the experience.

“For myself, I always try to approach my work in the most honest possible way. I don’t think we are trying to save lives, we are not doing open heart surgery or trying to feed the millions. We are making art, and it is important to us, but let’s not lose our perspective. I try to keep this in view when I am working and I like others to do the same.”

The Royal New Zealand Ballet performs Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele as part of the Passing Cloud programme at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House from November 17-21. Also on the bill are The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud by Javier de Frutos, Dear Horizon by Andrew Simmons, and Selon désir by Andonis Foniadakis. For details, click here.

The company are also performing Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel’s production of Giselle at the Wycombe Swan on October 6-7. Details here.