The cultures of the indigenous people of the Pacific Islands and New Zealand are filled with colorful rituals that include music, chanting, dancing, storytelling and other exuberant forms of creative expression.
New Orleanians can see examples of that when the New Zealand-based dance troupe, Black Grace, makes its local debut at the Mahalia Jackson Theater this Saturday, February 28, under the auspices of the New Orleans Ballet Association.
Key elements incorporated into their dance routines include music from Bach and movements popularized by more recent superstars like Bruce Lee and Elvis Presley, according to Black Grace founder and artistic director Neil Ieremia.
In addition, as Ieremia explained during a recent interview, there are some overtly political statements in the company’s dance repertoire that address such issues as discrimination and hostility toward Pacific Islanders from white, xenophobic extremists in New Zealand.
Ieremia was born in New Zealand to Samoan parents. The centerpiece of his company’s performance agenda is a three-movement, hour-long dance titled “Gathering Clouds,” which he composed and choreographed after the publication of a 2008 “discussion paper” written by a former New Zealand university professor which contended that the Pacific Islanders in that nation were “a drain on the economy.”
“These claims were negative and they really upset me, as well as the whole Pacific Island community,” Ieremia said. “He (Dr. Greg Clydesdale) took out-of-date statistics and skewed them in such a way that supported his particular view.”
Ieremia explained that a manpower shortage in New Zealand in the 1960s resulted in an influx of Pacific Islanders to fill jobs on the lower end of the economic scale. Later, after the economy recovered, many undocumented Islander laborers were forcibly deported, often with their homes broken into in the pre-dawn hours by heavily armed police with attack dogs. Key elements of the action in Black Grace’s “Gathering Clouds” piece metaphorically reflect that “dark period in our history,” as Ieremia described it.
The movements in “Gathering Clouds,” Ieremia said, are set to the music of Elvis Presley and largely taken from the movements he performed during his live shows. “We like to claim him (Presley) as one of our own. He was a huge influence on my life and in our Samoan community in New Zealand, along with Bruce Lee. As kids we used to gather in our community center and watch their films.”
Lee’s trademark Kung Fu movements from his action films can also be seen in the Black Grace routines, in addition to those of Presley’s.
Founded in 1995, Black Grace is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a tour of the U.S. that has been racking up rave reviews in every city in which they’ve performed. Originally consisting of 10 male dancers, Black Grace added three female dancers in 2003 and they have been performing with a 7-3 male-to-female configuration ever since.
Of the original members of Black Grace, one remains active in the company’s present-day roster: 42-year-old Sean MacDonald. “He was one of the youngest members of our company when I started it. Now he’s the oldest. This is a young man’s game for the rigorous type of dancing that we do,” Ieremia said.
Expounding on his philosophy and how it relates to the dances he creates for his company, Ieremia said, “I like to have as much creative freedom as I can. I don’t like to boxed and put in a particular category. My (Samoan) culture is very important to me and so is my New Zealand culture. It’s really a fusion of the two.”
During their weeklong stay in New Orleans, Ieremia and members of the troupe will be hosting workshops and demonstrations in several local schools. “This is very important to me and I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s part of our company work. It’s something I like to do wherever and whenever we can.”
Ieremia will host a pre-performance talk on the mezzanine level of the theater at 7:15 p.m., 45 minutes before curtain. It is free to all ticket-holders.