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On your feet!
FWDC brings the dynamic energy of New Zealand’s Black Grace to Fort Wayne
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Last month, the all-male New Zealand dance troupe Black Grace performed at the World of Music and Dance Festival (WOMAD) in Adelade, Australia. Around 15,000 people came to see their kinetic blend of contemporary and Pacific island dance forms, and the response, says Black Grace founder and artistic director Neil Ieremia, was overwhelming. “At the end, everybody jumped to their feet and started yelling and carrying on,” he says. “It was fantastic.”
But Black Grace gets this kind of response everywhere they go. Since Ieremia formed the group in 1995, they’ve met with tremendous success both internationally and in their home country. And the weekend of April 11, Fort Wayne will get a chance to see what has been inspiring audiences all around the world to leap to their feet (and writers to scramble for their Thesaurus to find synonyms for “dynamic”) when the Fort Wayne Dance Collective brings Black Grace to town for a couple classes and a performance at the Arts United Center.
Black Grace combines traditional dance forms of the Pacific islands with elements of contemporary dance. “Pacific dance, and in particular Samoan dance, is very rhythmic, it’s very, very energetic, it’s generally very fast, and it’s certainly very, very physical,” says Ieremia. “Those are the characteristics that are usually associated with my work that are derived from the traditional Samoan-type dancing. It’s very masculine.”
The first half of the name “Black Grace” comes from a New Zealand slang term meaning courage or daring (New Zealand’s national rugby team is called the All Blacks). “The guy who would go and ask out the prettiest girl in school even though he knew he had no chance, or the guy who would take on the school bully, we’d say ‘you’re black, man’,” explains Ieremia. And as far as “Grace” goes… “it’s a quality men lack, both in the physical sense and the metaphysical sense, so the name is almost a mission statement.”
Ieremia’s parents were Samoans who moved to New Zealand in the 60s, and through Black Grace Ieremia wanted to explore his cultural roots and heritage, as well as incorporate the new roots he had formed in New Zealand. “Artists seem always to be pre-occupied with sorting out who we are,” he says. “This entire issue of identities is a recurring theme in a lot of art, and certainly being a New Zealand-born Samoan that was one of the things that interested me quite a lot. Certainly when I started there were very few Pacific island voices speaking through dance and choreography, so I guess I wanted to take the best of both worlds and utilize those various elements to tell my stories and those of the Pacific.”
A recent full-length work called “Surface” deals directly with Ieremia’s heritage. It’s about Tatau, or tattooing, a rite-of-passage for young Samoan men. Ieremia explains the men receive a tattoo that goes from below the knee to right up just below the armpit. It’s full of the genealogy and value systems and all of these icons and symbols,” Ieremia says. “That’s telling the story quite literally, but in a more ethereal way, those traditions and values inform the way we interact and the way we operate as a company.”
Ieremia created Black Grace around three basic Samoan principles: Fa'amalosi/Loto Tele, meaning to be strong and persevering in the face of adversity; Fa'amaoni, to be honest and work with integrity; and Fa'aloalo, to be respectful and humble.
That last principle is telling. Despite numerous awards and accolades, and the rapturous responses that audiences have given Black Grace’s performances, Ieremia repeatedly says he’s humbled and honored by what they’ve achieved. Part of that humility might come from the fact that contemporary dance in New Zealand is still a relatively young industry. Ieremia had been a professional dancer and choreographer for many years before forming Black Grace. “Very rarely had I seen full houses, and certainly I had never seen people spontaneously jump to their feet at the end of a performance,” he says.
He also says that at the very beginning, there was some… confusion as to what exactly Black Grace was. “They see an image of a male dancer without a top on here in New Zealand and they think ‘oh my goodness. It must be a male revue’,” he laughs. “Because men don’t dance here otherwise. Men only dance if they’re taking their clothes off or if they’re drunk.”
“We come from a nation which is very… you know, we’re good old kiwis,” he adds. “It’s kind of the land where men are men and women are women, if you know what I mean. Very strong gender roles here in New Zealand. It’s changing, but it was very difficult to become a dancer in New Zealand when I started, because everyone just naturally assumed you were effeminate or what have you. And I grew up in a rough neighborhood, so that made life even tougher.”
Fort Wayne will see a mixture of old and new work when Black Grace comes to town. “It’s a very mixed bag,” Ieremia says. “In terms of the soundtrack, there’s everything from live traditional singing and chanting and slap dancing, what we call in Samoan fa'ataupati, to Chico Hamilton and Bach.”
The Fort Wayne Dance Collective presents Black Grace
Friday, April 11, 12:30 p.m.-1:15 p.m.: Lecture/demonstration at Indiana Tech. Tickets are $5 for the public, $3 for class trips, and free for Indiana Tech students. Call Fort Wayne Dance Collective if you are interested in bringing students from your school.
Saturday, April 12, 10 a.m.-noon: Members of Black Grace will teach a master class, open to the public. $25 per person.
Saturday, April 12, 8 pm: Performance at the Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $30 at the door; $25 advance sales for adults; $20 advance sales for children/seniors (Call about ticket discounts for groups of 10 or more)
For information and tickets, call the Fort Wayne Dance Collective at 260.424.6574 or email email@example.com