PC Jinki Cambronero
Neil Ieremia is the Founder and Artistic Director of Black Grace Dance Company
Growing up in the suburb of Cannons Creek in Porirua, Wellington, Neil Ieremia was not exposed to formal dance training until the age of 19 when he was invited to attend the Auckland Performing Arts School. The experience of course set him up for life. “What happens when you go to dance school and have your first ever ballet barre lesson as a 19 year old male with thighs that don’t close, and muscles in all the wrong places, and a brain that does not speak French,” he laughed, “I went from this cool kid to you know this failure!” But Neil pulled through dance school, and went on to create the well regarded pieces (like the ones talked about here) that earned him his worldwide reputation as one of New Zealand’s prominent choreographers. Neil shares his dance story with our WDCD team member Raina over Zoom.
What are you working on currently?
I am working on a few things. I am working on developing some new work based on some poetry I’ve been writing and as part of that I’m developing a project about rheumatic fever. I read in the paper a little while ago that a young man hadn’t come out of surgery very well and they couldn’t take him off the heart bypass machine and I was astounded to find out that rheumatic fever is still very prevalent in the Pacific Island community today, even after the government has spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate it. But there are so many issues tied up with rheumatic fever, not just the health conditions, but how poverty, and housing and education around how to ventilate your home, and also the cultural aspects of it. You have to understand the cultural factors that exist. But they keep doing the same thing, they put out a booklet, or a video clip, things that you know as a kid I would never listen to. But we’ve got to do something, because of the ongoing costs of that to our society is enormous, you know, I’ve had two heart surgeries, and the costs of that are significant.
If we can spend some time at the beginning of it, at the front of it, and understanding the cultural imperatives, the reason why young boys don’t complain about sore throats, we don’t complain about sore throats because we are tough, you know, we need to change some perspectives about stereotyping within our culture. It’s funny because dance is one of those things, I had to battle against some of the stereotyping of what a dancer was in the general New Zealand psyche. So I am working on developing this multi-media show to be presented in this architecturally designed tent, that we’ve been working on for about a year. You pop this tent in the middle of neighbourhoods like Cannons Creek, and it’ll be about 20 minutes with visuals, and there’s movement, there’s dance, and music, and the kids will leave that and get given something that is useful to take home, not a fridge magnet. And that experience, they’ll remember it, because they’ll feel that these people have put a lot of effort into it, and you know, you value the kids through that and they’ll take that away, and the experience will marinade in the back of their head.
You grew up in Cannons Creek?
I was born in Wellington, in Cannons Creek Porirua. I was a child of the 70s, growing up in a typical working class family, in a predominantly Pacific Island community surrounded by lots of family. It was a place where there was a lot of cultural expression and traditional culture, where there was a lot of singing and dancing. Song and dance was part of our everyday life. Although growing up I was never really exposed to ballet, or contemporary dance, or anything like that. No symphony orchestra visited Porirua. When Michael Jackson dropped the Thriller video, I guess, watching that was my first experience of modern dance.
Was there a particular memory from back then that shaped you?
Probably the biggest memory that shaped my life, and sort of, in a funny way, helped me arrive at this point where I am today was when I was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. I remember, when I was about 6, when my sisters and I were mucking around playing games on Sunday trying to avoid going to church my nose started bleeding. The bleeding just would not stop and my parents finally gave up trying to stop the bleeding and took me to the local health centre where the doctor, as soon as he checked me over, called an ambulance and told my parents that I needed to go to hospital. I spent quite a long time, months and months in hospital as they tried to help me get through this thing.
The reason why it is such a memory is because, as a result of rheumatic fever, I wasn’t allowed to be physical as a child. I wasn’t allowed to play sport, and I had to be dropped off and picked up from school in a car. I wasn’t allowed to run around like the other kids. That really affected me I think, being the youngest of four and coming from a sporty sort of family it was really hard that I could not join in with the others. But that led me to explore other things, I initially got into martial arts. And because my parents had no idea what that meant physically, I could get away with it, unlike rugby. And I started wrestling with some friends and I remember when I was at intermediate school, I used to have a couple of boys come and wrestle me at lunch time.
I guess why it was such a big memory for me was because, growing up as a Pacific Island male I felt I needed to prove myself (Neil’s piece, Crying Men, explores Pacific masculinity) and I really enjoyed being active. So, I started dancing around the lounge and dining room and at school we were exposed to all these traditional dance forms. We had back in those days what you call Poly Club, Polynesian Club and we learnt dance from the different Pacific Islands depending on who the teachers were that day, and that was great, and so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to sort of then start moving into dance, which was basically what I did.
Would you talk a bit about your relationship with dance?
You know, as soon as you hear music, your body moves, it’s almost involuntary, and for me it was certainly that way. I just wanted to move and I didn’t understand why. The only context I could use at that time was the traditional context where that was normal because everyone else around was moving. But when I left that context, I discovered that I continued moving. We had an old record player, and my sisters were into collecting music and I had a real passion I suppose for music too, so I would listen to these records and feel compelled to move. And I would dance, that was without anyone else around of course. I know I am telling the story of so many people in the world. Dancing, somehow elevates your soul to a different place and it opens up this other world of promise and dreams that you would not otherwise be able to access if you haven’t got money. It offers that escape to another world where you’re free. And I like to escape a lot.
So how did your journey with professional dancing start?
I guess it started back when I was 13 when I choreographed a dance for a youth service at the behest of my older sister. That was when I made my first piece of dance, to an Amy Grant song and it was very unusual for anyone to do anything like that back then. It was 1983, in a conservative Baptist Church in the middle of one of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods. But I noticed that people really felt something from it and I guess that encouraged me to keep going. I established my first dance group, at 13, and I called it Jam. People asked me what it stood for and I had to make something up so I said: Jam stands for Jesus and Me.
I kept doing that as part of our youth group and that kept me out of trouble. After seventh form, I wanted to take a year off before going to University, and my parents agreed I could as long as I got a job, so I got my first job at the local bank, but I was still making dance for our youth group while working. An opportunity came when World Vision put together this thing for kids from the Commonwealth countries to go on this tour to help raise money, and I got on that as part of the choreographic team and had the opportunity to work with a lady called Susan Jordan and while I had no professional training I got to work with professional dancers.
Then I took some time off from the bank to be part of a choreographic team that participated in the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990. It was mind-blowing standing there watching these dancers. And then out of the blue, while I was standing outside BATS Theatre one day, a woman by the name of Alison East came up to me and said, “you’re Neil.” And I said, “yes”. And she basically invited me to go to the Auckland Performing Arts School in Auckland that was being established that year. My mum and dad were not too happy that I left my job at the bank to do this.
Was it challenging starting dance training as an adult?
Where do I even begin! You know, I thought I was really cool growing up, I mean I did not have any trouble with coordination, and I could do a lot of things, but this was, well there were these 100 other kids that were amazing, and I was very middle of the road here. These kids could pick up any move! And what happens when you go to dance school and have your first ever ballet barre lesson as a 19 year old male with thighs that don’t close, and muscles in all the wrong places and a brain that does not speak in French, and you have to organise your body in a very unusual and alien way? Everything was counter-intuitive to me, I mean I was used to running and catching a ball and things like that but this coordination was completely alien and unnatural! So I went from this cool kid to the least cool person facing shame and failure every day!
But you pulled through
I guess the circumstances were helpful because I had left home and as I said my parents were not very happy about it. I had a lot of people telling me that this was a waste of time and I should just forget about it. I had a lot of that going on. To my family’s credit they were always really supportive but they made their feelings clear about my choice. And the community, they knew I was going to go and do this strange thing. So I could not go back to prove everyone right! In a way I had no choice. So despite those tears during my train rides back home every night to South Auckland, they weren’t going to get rid of me that easy. It would have taken a great deal to break that spirit.
Sounds like you were building some resilience there.
Yes, one of the things I’ve learnt from dance is real resilience. I think dancers all over the world are very, very resilient, we are like cockroaches, you know they say if the apocalypse happened and the earth was struck by an asteroid, afterwards you’d find cockroaches and dancers.
How did Black Grace come to be?
It’s been a long journey with Black Grace. I set up Black Grace officially in 1995, but it really started in 1993, when all the thinking and background work began. I set it up because I needed somewhere to dance and I needed to make dance sustainable for me, so I needed to create a business that would sustain itself and be enduring. It is hard to separate myself from it, even if I tried to, Black Grace is synonymous with me for better or worse and you know I’m really really appreciative of it and I never take it for granted. It was really a way of giving opportunities, not just for me, but for other people, I just happened to have the idea and wanted to make it work. Through it, I’ve taken so many young people and dancers overseas on tour, and I find myself constantly saying that every time I have the opportunity to sleep on an aeroplane I am both terrified and absolutely grateful because I understand that my parents never had the opportunity to do that.
Would you talk a bit more the role of dance in society?
I am a believer in the social impact of dance. I don’t see the point of art for art’s sake, as they used to say and I think it was Albert Einstein who once said that all religions, and science, and arts are branches of the same tree and, I am butchering this but, how they are all necessary in elevating us out of the physical state and engaging on a different level. And I really believe that, for me and Black Grace I think, art, dance is really about our society and how we serve society, it’s about humanity. That is really what I think it is about, and that is why I create and make the work I make.
Did you want to talk about your identity, in relation to dance?
When I start talking about my identity, I described it once when I was making a piece about traditional tattooing and my father’s journey to rediscover his cultural identity (Surface). He came back to it much later on in life as an old man, he was in his 60s when he re-found his whole fa’a Samoa, as we called it, his Samoan way. He found it so much so that he wanted to get his traditional pe’a, which is the traditional tattoo that young men get. And that really moved me because I thought you knew what you were about when you are old. But you know here he was rediscovering himself, and his identity, and what I realised is that being Samoan is really where it starts for me.
But I have so many parts from different places. I was making this piece called As Night Falls, and there’s this cartoon of these people, refugees on a boat waving out to the guards on shore and the guards asked them, “where are you from?” and they said, “earth.” That’s how I feel, we’re all from earth, and so we’re all branches from the same tree. My identity is shaped by lots and lots of things. People say to me, you’re too brown to be white, and then people say, you’re too white to be brown and people ask me why I make the pieces I make, and really I just create what I want to create because it is part of who I am. It is part of my responsibility to be as honest and as true to those impulses.
But you don’t really dance anymore?
I walk on stage from time to time but I don’t really dance too much anymore. It’s just the way it is but dance was always and will always be there. I started to get into choreography as a necessity, because, I needed to choreograph something to dance. And I started Black Grace as a necessity because I needed somewhere to dance. But professional dance is consuming, it requires real focus, professional dance at a particular level does not like sharing and so it is not something I can do anymore, because you know it takes a long time to choreograph, and it takes time to run a dance company.
And time for the family, and your kids.
Yes, I have two older ones, and two young ones. It is my youngest daughter’s birthday today, so we had a special breakfast for her this morning and my oldest daughter is coming over this afternoon and we’ll have some cake.
Here some of Black Grace’s work: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50odMlsHzr8)