Lealailepule Edward Cowley (from left), Petesa Maea,
Sina-Lorelie Eser
Rodney Tyrell

Lealailepule Edward Cowley (from left), Petesa Maea,
Sina-Lorelie Eser
▼ Black Grace
▼ Presented by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
▼ 8 p.m. Friday, July 22
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ Tickets are $54 to $94; 505-988-1234, tickets.lensic.org
The formidable New Zealand national rugby union team, known as the All Blacks (referring to their mono-color uniforms), performs a Māori war dance known as the haka before every match. Black Grace, the dance company created by Neil ieremia, a New Zealander of Samoan descent, presents dance that is physical, rhythmic, and high energy, like the haka on steroids. This South Pacific energy is coming to the Lensic on Friday, July 22.
ieremia, 52, a former rugby player himself, grew up in Cannons Creek, a tough neighborhood filled with struggling Pacific Islanders in Porirua, a suburb about 20 minutes from the New Zealand capital of Wellington. “Samoans sing all the time. We dance, perform, tell jokes. But to become a professional dancer? That is not an option. Dance is not a profession,” ieremia says.
When a church performing group the high schooler had been leading drew national attention, he was asked to join a choreography team creating a dance for the 1989 Commonwealth Games.
That led him to enroll at the Auckland Performing Arts Academy — against his parents’ wishes. Before finishing school, he joined the Douglas Wright Dance Company, helmed by a ballet-trained former Paul Taylor Dance Company member (Taylor was one of America’s modern dance pioneers) and had the opportunity to perform the work of many other choreographers.
“I enjoyed telling stories from Douglas Wright’s perspective, but I soon longed to tell stories about Pacific Islanders, about the struggles we face. I wanted to rediscover my culture and honor the beautiful traditions of my people.”
Rodney Tyrell
He started the company in 1995. “I was rolling around different names, but I didn’t want something boring like the Neil ieremia Dance Company.” “Black” was not a nice word growing up as a brown Polynesian in urban New Zealand, he says. “But we subverted the language, referring to each other as ‘black’ when we had done something with bravery, daring, courage, or strength. Everyone hated the name Black Grace, but they talked so much about hating it that I decided that was the name for us. It was a mission statement that we were brave and courageous. We go against the grain.”
The company began as an all-male group, including dancers who had been his friends since childhood. The dances were ritualistic affairs with strong, weighted movement and percussive rhythms. Over time, women were invited into the company and the dynamic changed. ieremia still works from a connection to his culture, but, as he put it, “the work has grown more subtle over the years. I used to be a sledgehammer kind of guy, but over time, I’ve grown more patient. I like to have a bit of a laugh.” A recent dance featured a “strapping 6 foot 2 Samoan drag queen named Buckwheat, who is a family friend,” moving to “Last Dance,” the disco classic by Donna Summer.
A movie welcomes you to Black Grace’s website. In the opening scene, at night, a horse shifts its weight and munches grass next to a huge tree where semi-naked dancers lie among the branches and along the ground, like roots. As the camera moves closer, a shirtless young man sits at a chess table. His opponent wears a white suit, boxing gloves, and a lacy mask. There is no explanation or obvious reason for these images. There are no pictures of leaping dancers, no list of past choreographies, no YouTube videos. Just a single link that takes you to a list of upcoming performances, with a few options to connect with the group’s social media or contact information. It’s all very stripped down and arty.
“Black Grace is an idea, a concept, a living entity. It’s more than just about dance.”  — Neil ieremia
“That image is from a dream,” ieremia says. “The man in the white suit is me, the boy is my son Isaac (who just turned 17). My son and I play chess. My dad used to love fighting and would have my brother and me box. In the image, I’m hamstrung from moving my chess piece by the boxing glove over my hand. The horse is from my dad’s childhood. He and his brothers were charged with looking after a horse once, and they let it escape. My grandfather tied all his boys to a tree and gave them a bit of hide. The dancers branching out of the tree represent memories. The white suit represents White Sunday, when all the Samoan children would dress up in white on a special Sunday and go to church.”
The dream also included memories from the creation of “O Le Olaga — Life,” set to Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major, which will be on the program in Santa Fe. “There are aspects of Gloria in there. The haunting beauty of the music. The name of the piece came from my mother. She asked me what my new work was about. I said, ‘It’s about how things change and transition over time.’ She says, ‘O Le Olaga,’ the Samoan expression for ‘That’s life.’”
Dreams, images, memories, and stories all come into the making of a Black Grace work. “I remember how my mother would wipe tears from her face using her thumbs,” he demonstrated with his own hands. “And then her hands would move down her neck and end up at her sternum.” Another memory was his grandmother, visiting from Samoa, who would smoke a hand-rolled Samoan cigar while cutting the grass at his parent’s house the old-fashioned way, with a machete.
“Black Grace is an idea, a concept, a living entity. It’s more than just about dance.”
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