Internationally renowned New Zealand choreographer Neil Ieremia brought his contemporary dance company Black Grace to the Bovard Auditorium to present a collection of pieces celebrating his company’s repertoire on Monday evening. The New Zealand dance group, founded in 1995, mixes contemporary movement with the Samoan and New Zealand heritage of Ieremia.
As the audience sat in total darkness, barely able to make out the line of dancers rushing onto the stage holding hands, a single buzz floated in the air. It came from one dancer, then another, then another until the group of six hums in harmony. No one had moved since the first buzz, which is not typical in a dance piece.
The lights are up, revealing two drummers behind the dancers who ensure a rhythm now perceptible with a beautiful syncope. The rest of the piece flies away with a flurry of contemporary and South Pacific choreography driven by the drummers at full speed.
Ieremia’s choreography incorporates frequent body percussion inspired by Samoan Sasa and Fa’ataupati, a traditional dance that aligns with the intricate rhythm of the drum, adding another level of physical and musical complexity. In a question-and-answer session with Kaufman School of Dance Associate Dean and director Jodie Gates, Ieremia discussed the importance of this first piece, “Kiona and the Little Bird Suite”.
“The piece is a collection of all the movements, movement phrases, patterns and all kinds of stuff from the past 25 years of Black Grace,” Ieremia said.
According to the event program, the disparity between historical and modern modes of artistic expression in the work – especially with regard to music – is an intentional decision that provides a space for interaction between these modes.
“The mix of live and recorded sounds is a recognition of the meeting place of old and new, traditional and contemporary,” the program reads.
Ieremia draws on some of his most famous repertoires, which cover a range of topics from child abuse to peace. The event also exposed the audience to the themes of toxic masculinity, freedom and matriarchy in New Zealand culture.
One notable thing about Black Grace is her uncompromising desire to blur the lines between celebrating tradition and welcoming modern forms of expression. Ieremia is also no stranger to using art that originates from outside the South Pacific, entrusting some of his works to classical European composers like Antonio Vivaldi.
Ieremia admitted that he had been given wide eyes and many questions in response to his choices which openly strayed from the cultures he had decided to celebrate. However, Iremia said that the mixture of art from different cultures creates something new and original.
“We’re all the same people, aren’t we? Said Ieremia. “We all do the same thing. We breathe the same air. They expected me to keep using wooden drums, nets and grass skirts because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But I just thought it was ridiculous.
The choreographer approached the difficult conversation surrounding cultural appropriation in art by suggesting that humanity is our most fundamental connection. By looking beyond the veils of guarded traditions and cultural norms, we can try to release the tendency to preserve our culture when we reject the interbreeding between cultures.
Black Grace’s explosive movements also blend beautifully with the slower classical music of baroque composers Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. Ieremia seems to have mastered the art of fusing the conventional and the unusual through choreography, theme and music.
Black Grace previously performed at the Bovard Auditorium in 2015. Visions and Voices executive director Daria Yudacufski said the company didn’t travel to the United States often, so when she heard they were on tour, she seized the risk and ensured the presence of the group.
“They really are just this wonderful company,” Yudacufski said. “It’s really wonderful to be able to bring in international artists through Visions and Voices.”
Black Grace moves with raw power and intense physique that make every performance an exhilarating race. The effective use of counterpoint and canon techniques creates some of the most incredible visuals seen on stage. Ieremia has shown that he can manage his dancers while letting each dancer embody their work in a unique way.
The final presentation is certainly a sight to behold, which demands as much attention from the audience as from its dancers. Through the immense energy and creative use of different artistic media by Black Grace, Ieremia makes the company a risk-ready business.
By asking questions about the role of toxic masculinity and freedom, Ieremia’s post appears to align with the goals of the Visions and Voices initiative. According to Yudacufski, the program aims to use the arts to engage students in thinking about larger social issues and ideas.
“I want to strike up a conversation along the lines of [looking] to the way we treat our fathers, ”Ieremia said. “I want us to look at the way we treat our women, and I want us to take a deeper look at the things that pose tough questions.”
By incorporating events of international artists, the initiative engages students on a deep multicultural level that allows the community to explore how people are connected through modern social issues.
Brianna Pember, a first year musical theater major, praised the performance and held the technical aspects of the company in high regard.
“I like the minimalist [sic] aspects, how there was no set and the costumes were really simple. It was really heavy storytelling, and I felt like I could see everything they were trying to say and it was really beautiful.