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New Zealand's Black Grace brings new physicality to Pittsburgh Dance Council

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Credit: Duncan Cole
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Credit: Duncan Cole
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Duncan Cole
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Credit: Duncan Cole
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Credit: Duncan Cole
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Credit: Duncan Cole
New Zealand dance company Black Grace. Duncan Cole

Updated 37818 hours ago

Pittsburgh Dance Council's commitment to finding cutting-edge dance took it halfway around the world for its new offering, the Black Grace company from New Zealand. Its founder and choreographer, Neil Ieremia, has created his own language, melding Polynesian influences with modern dance.

Zoe Watkins says Black Grace's style of dance is very different from anything she's seen or done before. The 27-year-old dancer studied ballet throughout her childhood, and, as a freelancer, sampled many dance styles and ways of working with other groups before she joined Black Grace in 2009.

“It's extremely fast-paced, very athletic and emotionally charged the whole way through. I like the physicality of it,” she says. “It's what drew me to the company.”

Pittsburgh Dance Council will present Black Grace on Saturday at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

Ieremia (u-REAM-ee-ah) grew up near Wellington, New Zealand's capital, in a community of Maori people, the indigenous population of the country. His parents were part of a migration of Samoans who were looking for unskilled labor jobs in the late '60s and early '70s. After graduating from the Auckland Performing Arts School, Ieremia worked on a freelance basis before forming Black Grace in 1995.

“Right from the start, the first piece I made after graduating from dance school was about Samoan cricket,” he says. “We have our own version, kilikita, of the English game. It's quite a fun game to play with long triangle shaped bats and very small, hard rubber balls. It's not at all quiet and serious like the English game. There are large crowds from each village on either side of the field cheering. There's lots of ducking for cover.”

After his cricket piece, Ieremia realized more fully the elements of Pacific island and modern New Zealand culture that were in him. Not that he creates pieces to a recipe, consciously measuring the proportions of stylistic influence.

“I can't deny who I am. ... Like many people who have come from other countries, the values and systems my parents brought with us became a hybrid of ideas with ones from the new world in which we were living,” he says. “It wasn't always a comfortable place to be in. Once I accepted that I don't really belong here or there, that I'm up in the air, things got a lot easier. It's reflected in the work I do.”

When Ieremia creates, he builds simple movements into phrases. He believes dance, at its core, is intuitive, but as an art form, it is organized intuition.

“He has spread his artistic roots in several rich pasts, and grown up and out into a sunlight of his own making,” wrote The New York Times' Jennifer Dunning.

The first piece on Saturday's program, “Pati Pati,” takes phrases and singular movements from his older dance works and uses them in a structure of traditional Samoan seated dance and slap dance.

“When you make a piece, it goes out and lives its own life. To remake ‘Pati Pati' was a wonderful experience for me,” he says. “It has all the things I love, especially the speed and polyrhythmic nature of it.”

“Amata” will be performed in a modified form, because it was originally created for 12 women dancers, and there are seven men and four women dancers on the current tour. It was adapted in 2011 for a tour of Germany.

Ieremia addressed his theme of change in this piece, with inspiration from the structure of fine mats called “ie toga” that are used at weddings, funerals and other important occasions. He says the mats are made in many sizes, some 25 feet by 30 feet, as finely woven as fabric and beautiful.

The program will conclude with “Vaka,” which means raft or canoe. It arose from an exercise in the studio modeled after “Survivor.” The dancers pretended they were stuck on an island and after 60 days ran out of food and water.

“Who would you get rid of first?” he asked. “It really took us days to get through it and bring to the surface a whole raft of emotions and questions. People got passionate, started to cry. Some people had to withdraw. But it brought us to a place of understanding, at least to a tiny degree, of what it must be like in that situation.”

The exercise gave contour to the metaphor of people being their own vessel in which they carry precious possessions and people. How far will you go to protect them becomes an essential dramatic question in the piece.

Sean MacDonald, one of the founding members of Black Grace, especially enjoys performing “Vaka.”

“It's got a lot more meat you get to chew on as a performer, as a dancer,” MacDonald says. “There's the subject matter and the length, nearly an hour, so you feel you've done something by the end of it.”

As a teen, MacDonald was into sports, such as hockey, and interested in acting. Then, one night he was at a disco and won a contest.

“I don't know if I was any good, but I had a lot of energy to burn,” he says. “Winning got me interested in dance, just as a side thing. It wasn't until I tried contemporary dance that I took it more seriously.”

He enrolled at the Auckland Performance Arts School, where he met Ieremia, who was a year ahead of him.

“We've known each other so long, almost 22 years; he's more than a colleague to me,” MacDonald says. “I see people at work and Neil more than I see other people, friends, even the people I live with — especially when we're on tour.”

Ieremia “expects the best and works to get away from the mediocre. He'll keep pushing until he gets that, where each person is at their best,” MacDonald says. “He's doesn't expect amazing things from those just starting, but challenges them with questions about what he wants you to do when he's creating work.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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