As Neil Ieremia explains to Dale in this interview, he didn’t have an easy entry into the world of contemporary dance. When he was a Porirua youngster, he had rheumatic fever — which led on, as it so often does, to heart damage. There were major reservations, too, from his mum and dad when he decided to train as a dancer rather than working at a “proper job”.
But he made it, not just as a dancer but also as the founder, choreographer, and artistic director for Black Grace, which, since 1995, has been thrilling crowds throughout New Zealand and at venues in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Pacific.
The company, which began with 10 male dancers, has now trained 10 times that number — and is still building on its remarkable legacy.
Mālō, Neil. Your dancing and choreography fame has meant that many New Zealanders are familiar with your name. But I wonder if you could tell us where that comes from.
Sure. Well, the first name of my father’s father was Iere, or Ieremia. And we have a habit in the islands, particularly when we move away from home, of taking the first name and making it our last name. And that’s what my dad did when he came from Samoa to New Zealand in the ‘60s with my mother, Kiona.
My father comes from the village of Matautu in the district of Falealili and my mother comes from the village of Le Pea in the district of Faleata. They met when they were very young. Mum was still in her late teens and Dad a little bit older.
What brought them here?
After Mum and Dad got married, Dad came to New Zealand on a teaching scholarship. Then he went back and collected Mum and Peaario, the oldest of us four kids, and brought them to New Zealand.
It was that time when many Pacific Islanders were looking for a better life for their families. So they moved to Petone in Wellington and then settled in Porirua, where the rest of us children were born. I’m the youngest of us four siblings.
And Dad’s a teacher? Or was?
No, he’s not. He came here on this teaching scholarship and went, I think, to Hutt Valley High to be a teacher’s assistant. But he turned to painting. He was always interested in visual art and he wanted to pursue that career. But then, when he brought Mum and Pea over, of course, the reality of having to feed the family kicked in.
So these ideas of being an artist quickly went out the window and he went to the freezing works in Ngauranga Gorge. And my mum got a job in a clothing factory, which was quite handy because she learned how to sew and made a lot of our clothes when we were growing up.
I’m a state house kid. Were you guys too?
Yup. Our first house was in Bedford Street in Cannons Creek, just around the corner from the Bedford Lounge, that old, terrible place where people used to go and get drunk. My brother Lale and I had to go and pull my dad out of there a few times when we were kids. The last house where I lived was in Swansea Street, right in Porirua East.
That’s been portrayed as a pretty rough area. More like a war zone than a comfortable place to raise kids. At times a much maligned community. But what are your memories?
It was pretty tough. Not the easiest place to grow up in. There was a lot of poverty there. And a large concentration of Pacific and Māori families. When I was going to school in the 1970s, it used to be fairly mixed but then there was that white flight with many of our Pākehā brothers and sisters all moving on.
When I went to Porirua College, I think there was about a thousand students. But I went there recently and there’s only about 400 on the roll now.
And the demographics in that neighbourhood have really changed, too. While I was a student, it was sort of 70-30 in favour of the browns. Then it changed. I didn’t see one Pākehā/Pālagi kid there when I went back last year.
You don’t flinch when you see the Mob?
Nah. Some of them were my mates, you know. We all went to school together – although it was hard when we were little kids and you’d see a patched up gang member walking towards you. But you get a bit streetwise growing up in places like that.
I have to say, though, that the community is really rich, too. In a big concentration of people like that there’s always a way to give, and to engage with others in the community — to find things to do. We didn’t have a lot of money for sure, but we always found something to do, and it wasn’t always bad. Outsiders have looked in and decided that we were all really tough. But I don’t think that’s the sum of us. There are some neat people that’ve come out of the Creek.
Do you think that background has influenced the type of person you are — and that it’s reflected in your work as well?
Oh, absolutely. I’m proud to be from Cannons Creek in Porirua. That’s where I spent my formative years and I can’t help but be affected by it. I take Porirua with me and I take New Zealand with me wherever I go around the world. I’m a product of this place — some of it good, some of it bad.
There was a lot of racism, some tough times and scary moments, too. But it’s also the place where I learned how to dance, where I learned to be resilient, and where I learned about generosity from people giving out of nothing. So I’m very, very proud to be from Cannons Creek.
We’ll talk of the good times in a moment, but do you have an example of the bad things you’ve encountered?
One that comes to mind is when I was in my seventh form year in Porirua College. We had a new English teacher who asked us to read King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s plays. Our class had never read any Shakespeare before and we found it really difficult. We had no understanding of the language or what they were on about; which meant we really struggled. One day she told us not to bother anymore because we were all going to fail anyway.
Her remarks weren’t all that common, but it was the tone we got from some of the people that came in supposedly to help us. So, all through my career, I’ve remembered her.
And, when I was lucky enough to travel overseas for the first time as a young dancer, I recall looking around The Grand Place in Brussels, reflecting on what I’d achieved — and spending a quiet moment with her in my mind.
As a young fulla, did you have any run-ins with the law?
You know what? I’ve had a really blessed life. I wasn’t always a law-abiding citizen especially when I was a teenager. But I never got caught — and never had a run-in with the police. I’m really grateful for that.
Once, when I was a kid, my mother took me to Mt Crawford to visit my uncle who was in prison. And that gave me a wake-up call. It was really frightening to see these guys and my uncle locked up. I knew I didn’t want to be there, that’s for sure. That sort of scared me straight, and I was always wary of causing too much strife after that visit.
Let’s talk about dancing now. What was it that got you moving?
When I was six years old, I got rheumatic fever and the doctor told my parents that I shouldn’t run around or exert myself. So I got treated with kid gloves for a while. But I had all this energy, so I tricked my parents into letting me do martial arts when I was 10 or 11. They didn’t know what martial arts was. They didn’t realise it wasn’t at all soft or easy.
Instead, it was bloody hard work. Really intense. But I loved it. And I was into music as well. We all had to go to church and my dad had a band. And, before I’d reached my teens, I was listening to old records at home on our stereo. The other kids weren’t there because they were out playing sport or making their way home from school, whereas I had to get a taxi home. I was quite ill for a long time.
And, when I was back from school ahead of the others, I’d be secretly making up dance moves to music at home. But my sister, Pea, must’ve known, somehow, about my really good secret because, one day, she asked me if I’d make a dance for a church youth service we were having.
I was sort of dumbfounded as to how she knew my secret, but I guess big sisters always know. So I made my first dance when I was 13, at church. And it went really well. So I just kept doing it. It was an easy way to move and keep active.
I didn’t have any formal training. But, eventually, there was the video of Thriller and that sort of changed the game for us. We were all trying to copy Michael Jackson’s moves. He was such a huge influence on us. Then hip-hop arrived and we had the advent of the Porirua Street Rockers and all of those other crews.
I had a couple of cool mates in the Porirua City Street Rockers and they joined our dance group and it kinda just went from there really, right up until I was 19 and I moved to Auckland to go to dance school. And that was a crash course in a brand new world for me.
Can we just flesh that out a little bit because there was Michael Jackson but, by his own admission, he was influenced by James Brown and Little Richard and Gene Kelly. All of these guys were twirlers extraordinaire and had a real groove to them.
Oh yeah. I was a huge James Brown fan. He’s truly the Godfather. But more than that, because he was something of a bad boy and was taking a strong stance for the black people in America. That influenced me early on, in the sense that you could speak to a cause through your art.
These days, dance students have instant access to information and images and music through the internet. But, when I was a student, I didn’t have a video cassette recorder. We lived in a world without any of that and we were too poor to have a video cassette recorder when I was a kid. So I was always over at my friend’s house who had one — and we’d rewind and fast forward and rewind and learn and rewind and learn again.
How did your peers react? Did they think you were cool or a wuss?
Probably both. But I had the advantage of having my big sister who was the strongest kid at Maraeroa Primary School. I remember once when my brother, Lale, was watching some older boys playing marbles and one of the big kids told him to piss off. But he didn’t. So he got a bit of a knock.
So he went and found Pea, who came along and knocked the big kid silly. And all the while she was crying – that’s just my sister. You know, she’s so lovely and so peaceful, but she was so angry that this guy had knocked my brother. So she was giving him a hiding and crying all at once because she felt bad about it. I was lucky to have that kind of protection from my sister, and I went through school pretty unscathed.
Anyway, I mostly kept to myself. I was bit of an outlier, so I got left alone. And then, when I started my dance group, a couple of those tough boys joined my group. No one messed with them, so, when other kids saw they were in my group, no one gave me stick.
You love dancing and you’re obviously good at it. But perhaps there was something else that drew you to this career. Was it the applause, because that can be quite intoxicating?
You’re right, Dale. I think a lot of us Pacific people like to show off. And we like encouragement — and making people happy. And that was certainly part of it for me. But I think what I liked more was having a voice and telling stories that people perhaps hadn’t heard before.
When I moved up to Auckland, it was a huge thing. When I told my father I was going to dance school, he didn’t talk to me for I don’t know how long. You see, I used to work in a bank. When I left school, I didn’t know what to do. Mum and Dad were encouraging me to go to university like my brother and sister, and I was sort of: “Aw, look I’ll take a break.” So I got a job in a bank and that kept them happy for a while.
Then I left that and got a job on a choreographic team that participated in the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990. That was my introduction to both professional dance and dancers. I hadn’t seen people like that before. I didn’t know people could do that and certainly not brown men from the Pacific.
One of the first dancers I saw at the rehearsals was Taiaroa Royal, who later was our associate artistic director at Black Grace. I saw him running across the field during the practice at Rangitoto College and I thought: “Gee, that fulla is cool. Look at his hair. Look how ripped he is.” He was just the man. He really inspired me.
But I didn’t know what dance school to go to. One option was the New Zealand school in Wellington, which was predominantly a ballet school. And another one was in Auckland, which is where I ended up. My parents weren’t very happy about that. I was staying with my aunty out in Weymouth in Manurewa and every day my mum would ring, or I’d ring her, and she’d say: “Have you had enough yet? It’s time to come home.”
And it was hard at dance school. I’d never done ballet before, and when I walked into my first ballet class I got asked to leave because I didn’t have the right attire. I had to go and find some tights and what have you before I could go back in.
I never wanted to wear those things and I’ve been reluctant to wear them ever since. But you have to learn these things and, by my second year, I was invited to join the Douglas Wright Dance Company, which pretty much got me everywhere, before founding Black Grace in 1995.
Black Grace is an interesting name for a dance company. How come you chose that name?
The word black is a word we used to describe each other at high school. But it was a positive term. So, if you’d been impressed by something your mate had done, you might say, “Gee, bro, you’re black” and that was a compliment. We were taking a word that had been used in a negative way, and we were giving it a different meaning. It’s not really a reference to colour at all.
And, as for grace, that’s something my ballet teacher used to tell me that I lacked. She kept saying, “you need more grace, you need more grace.”, So when I set up my first dance company, I had all these different names for it. Like “Neil Ieremia and Dancers” or something stupid like that.
Everyone hated “Black Grace”. So that’s why I chose it because I guess that’s us — going against the grain. It’s doing something that other people think is stupid or foolhardy. That’s what Black Grace means.
The company is now more than 20 years old, isn’t it? And it has broken a lot of moulds in the contemporary dance scene and been a great success along the way. You must have often felt that it’s all been worthwhile
Yeah. Like in the debut season of Black Grace. When I was a young dancer, my parents very seldom came to our shows. Often that was because I’d tell them not to come because the content would’ve been hard for them and their conservative views, and I didn’t want to offend them.
But we had a show at the Maidment Theatre at Auckland University when all of us asked our parents to come along, and we gave them seats in the circle that are usually reserved for the sponsors. So our parents sat up there in the best seats. And, at the end of the show, everyone stood up and just went crazy.
I remember looking up at my parents and feeling great that I’d made them proud. And we all felt that way. The boys and I shared our stories over a couple of quiet drinks after the show and it was really special.
Another proud occasion was at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which is just outside Boston and is one of the oldest dance festivals in the world. We had people lining up and trying to sell or swap their tickets to the other show so they could come to ours. But there were no tickets left. We were in the small theatre and the other company, Mark Morris Dance Group, in the main theatre, was a big New York company. So that was really exciting for us.
But some of my favourite occasions have been when we’ve played in places like the college hall in Kaikohe — or when we performed in Porirua with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I’d step out and tell the crowd that I’d just brought along a few friends to play some music while we danced. That was great having them playing in the background.
That time in the Maidment Theatre must’ve been special when there was that affirmation from your dad — and him recognising your professionalism and commitment.
I think I nearly cried, to be honest. That was my first response — and then knowing that they were proud of what I was doing. Like a lot of other kids, I went through my teenage and early adult years thinking that I wasn’t making my parents happy, or I wasn’t living up to my parents’ expectations. So to look up there and to know that they were really happy and so supportive was just great.
Normally, after these shows, you have sort of wine and cheese, but my cousin had organised a big island feed. So we had a huge pig that they’d put in the umu. And raw fish and chop suey and taro. People just stayed on and my parents were there and feeling so proud. And I finally felt like I was doing something right.
Can you put your finger on anything that’s distinctive about Polynesian dance?
Sometimes I say to people that I’m the wrong guy to be doing what I’m doing. Contemporary dance has come down from old classical techniques somewhere in Europe or America. And it wasn’t made for people like us with our physical builds and with stories like ours.
I think that being original and unique is an enormous reason why we’re still here. We tell stories from our perspective. We don’t try and copy what happens in Europe or anywhere else. This is about us. This is where we’re from. This is how we move. This is our music.
And we don’t separate art from life because we all sing and dance when the family gets together. Everyone tells stories. Everyone jokes. And there’s a physicality to us, an urgency and a rhythm to us. And I think our stories are unique globally and are particularly appealing in markets like the US and in Europe because they haven’t seen this before. So I’m very proud to be part of this movement.
Well, sometimes I feel cautious about the way we’re marketed overseas. I recall that, back in 2003 when we were on tour in Holland, they marketed us as these exotic people from the antipodes. I didn’t like that. It really bugged me. I don’t want people seeing us as “noble savages” from the South Pacific. The stories we tell are by us, not stories about us by others.
You’re seen as one of the kaumātua now of the contemporary dance scene with a wonderful record as a performer, choreographer, and mentor. But, although you still look to be going strong, now that you’re in your late 40’s, your dancing days may be coming to an end.
I stopped dancing a few years ago. There’ve been all those injuries I sustained as a young dancer. But the rheumatic fever I had as a young boy has taken its toll, too, and I had to have a heart valve replacement at some point. That slowed me down a fair bit.
Some dancers can dance for a long time. Like Sean MacDonald. He’s a young Māori man who’s 45, but he’s still out there and doing the damage. It’s pretty physical work. It’s labour intensive. People may think that when dancers get into a dance studio they just muck around — and probably some of them do.
But at Black Grace, here in Mt Eden, the dancers have to run up the maunga in the mornings and come back here and really go for it. Weekdays. Weekends. It’s a tough life.
So you’ve traded in the leotard for a suit?
I wouldn’t go as far as a suit. Still in the old trackies, sitting at the front of the room pointing and waving my finger at dancers. But I’ve always been the choreographer and artistic director of Black Grace, and I’m still that as well as being the general dogsbody — taking out the rubbish and sweeping the floor. That kind of thing.
You must have fun dancing with your kids.
Yeah, I do. Two really young ones: a one-year-old, Eva, and Alietta, who’s nearly three. And then I’ve got a 13-year-old, Isaac, and a 19-year-old, Isabella. And Isabella is working with me on a project for the end of the year. We’re working with Auckland Theatre Company to present a season of short works by Pacific artists — which will be completely free to the public. That’s exciting. Just blows my mind that one.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
© E-Tangata, 2018
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.