In the 1960s, Neil Ieremia’s parents left Samoa, a small Pacific Island nation, and immigrated to New Zealand in search of a better life.
”At that time there was a labor shortage in New Zealand,” Neil says, explaining why his parents settled in a blue-collar working-class town a few miles north of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. It was a place, he says, where the young men, like many throughout Australia and New Zealand, thought their only athletic outlet was rugby football.
“It’s a place where people worked either in a factory, or were on social welfare,” he explains.
Neil’s parents worked hard. They made sure their children were educated and all went on to good-paying occupations. One thing his parents never thought they would see was that one of their children would grow up to be a dancer. While dance, rhythm and music are part of all Pacific islanders’ cultures, Neil says with a wry laugh, “If you want to do that professionally, well that’s blasphemy”.
Neil enrolled in a full-time dance program and in his final year of training was invited to join the prestigious Douglas Wright Dance Company where he worked until 1996. In 1995, he founded his company, Black Grace, with 10 male dancers of Pacific, Maori and New Zealand heritage. Since that time, he has turned his company into one of the most well-known New Zealand cultural organizations.
This Saturday, New Orleanians will have the chance to see Neil and his company perform in a unique dance presentation that blends traditional Samoan body percussion known as Fa’ataupat or slap dance, with western contemporary dance.
Neil has been honing these unique styles for the past 20 years, changing the face of contemporary dance in New Zealand in sold-out performances around the world. His parents have accepted his lifestyle, his mother, perhaps more so than his father.
Neil remembers well the time he told his family what his plans were. “I had graduated high school and took a gap year working in a bank before going on to university,” he recalls. “I gathered my parents in the dining room and said ‘Mum and dad, I am leaving the bank and I’m going to be a dancer.’ My mum burst into tears and my father made that clicking sound all islanders make when they disapprove of something,”
Saturday’s performance will include five works created by Neil that showcase the company’s two-decade history, including one called Mother, Mother, a tribute to his own mother, the unsung hero of his family.
The evening finale is the 60-minute Gathering Clouds, a deeply personal and crucially acclaimed work that is Neil’s response to controversial claims made in 2008 by a New Zealand economist that “Pacific Island immigrants are a drain on the New Zealand economy.” Traditional Cook Island drumming, Samoan hymns and Tongan chants are set to the music of Elvis Presley, recordings of spoken news headlines, even Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Where: Mahalia Jackson Theater
When: Saturday, February 28 at 8 p.m.
Tickets for Black Grace start at $24 and may be purchased through the New Orleans Ballet Association Box Office (504) 522-0996 or www.NOBAdance.com and through Ticketmaster (800) 745-3000