Celebrating 20 years of dance

Neil Ieremia is a man on the move – in dance and business.

Black Grace: Neil Ieremia, Founding Artistic Director, Choreographer
Siva: November 6-7, 2015, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland
20 for 20: November 10-December 6, 2015

Neil Ieremia is a man on the move – in dance and business. If you’ve ever feasted on the sensory-rich performances that Black Grace contemporary dance group produces, you’ve probably stepped into the complex, restless workings of his creative mind. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the ex-bank worker-turned-choreographer and founder of the iconic group spoke to NBR about its success and what three Chinese fortune cookies bought in New York have to do with it all.

During the morning’s interview, Mr Ieremia had already consumed two coffees and was offered a third as he was asked about reaching this milestone in his career: “I feel tired! Haha. It’s 20 years, it’s a long time and you know, New Zealand is an interesting place to engage in an endeavour like this one. Mostly I’m really proud, relative to other dance companies and other organisations generally in New Zealand. I think it’s a real achievement. And so I feel happy about that.”

Without having a first or second coffee myself, my manners had yet to kick in and the temptation to ask straight up, how exactly had he survived for 20 years in the world of contemporary dance was too strong. Because other than the ‘dance’ part, the ‘contemporary’ prefix provides little for the average imagination or understanding of what it is. And if the shudders of a fellow colleague were anything to judge by, contemporary dance is often deemed as inaccessible, if not a little weird. Clearly this has not been a problem for Black Grace, so how did he get around this? 
“With Black Grace, the whole idea from the outset was to make dance that I could invite my parents to come and see. I had some clear ideas about what I wanted to say but art is always at the forefront of it. And so the execution of that work has to be such that it maintains a high standard but it provides a degree of accessibility.” 
Mr Ieremia is idealistic but realistic: “If people come in and they don’t like what you’re talking about, say they don’t like your theme, your concept, idea well that’s fine as long as the presentation of that is at a certain level that enables people to come in and go ‘wow, I liked that’ or ‘I hated that but I appreciated the professionalism.’”

Given all the passion he conveys, it seems that the haters were hating while Mr Ieremia continued to create, “I just keep going and I suppose one of the great things about Black Grace turning 20 is that you know, you can say lots of things but at the end of the day it’s a legacy, its longevity, sustainability and when you have that it’s very hard to argue with.”
Indeed, there’s nothing sweeter than the facts and that despite the hardships that can come with being an artist, people like Mr Ieremia continue to make it work, “You know, it’s not like a business making refrigerators for example, you’re making dance in a very niche market.” A niche market that he’s nonetheless been successful in.

Humble beginnings
Neil Ieremia’s story has all hallmarks of a Hollywood narrative: A Samoan kid, from Cannons Creek, Porirua, who grew up in a “relatively rough neighbourhood” and was “not particularly well off,” he had his first dance group by 13. After being exposed to contemporary dance, he soon left a stable job and hometown and moved to train in the Auckland Performing Arts School, before joining the acclaimed Douglas Wright Dance Company. Freelancing for some time, by 1995 Ieremia formed his own highly acclaimed company Black Grace – a company which has ridden the economic waves of the last 20 years thanks to his business nous that stemmed from his banking background as well as his own mother. 

“I’m lucky because my mum has a very sharp business mind. She’s never put it into action but she ran our household for years and kept us all fed and clothed and watered and we survived and we turned out this way and with a very small amount of money. We never went hungry, and we always had good clothes.”

It’s this kind of grounding and familial respect that makes it so easy to like Neil Ieremia. His skills are not just in artistic choreography but also in business.
“I’m not risk averse. I’m entrepreneurial, I suppose, but I have to balance that risk with a very cautious approach as well. There are lots of contradictions, lots of arguments going on in my head often. So I’ll want to make a show and I’ll want to spend X amount of dollars on this and that evening I’ll go back to my desk once I’ve stopped working in the studio, I’ll review the budget and I’ll have this argument with myself whether we can afford to do this or not and if I can’t where else can I get this from?”

Careful considerations
As we get warmed up on numbers and coffee, it becomes evident that ethics play an important role to Mr Ieremia.   

“You know our funding that we receive, I take it very, very seriously and I always have because my parents pointed out to me right from the beginning.” A beginning it seems that is rooted in his parents’ fear and awe of the very nature of surviving on grants.
“When I got my first grant, they were amazed at the amount of money. It was a small amount of money but they were shocked and asked, ‘what are you going to do?’ And I said, use it on the show. And they said, ‘No, no, no, no, how are you going to pay it back?’ And I said I don’t have to pay it back, mum and dad, it’s a grant. And they didn’t understand that concept. And so, when they finally got their head around it, they said to me, ‘Look you better make sure you –’”
Use it wisely? I prompted helpfully.
Yeah.” 

A fine balance
Having first met Neil Ieremia many moons ago through a Black Grace visit to my high school and more recently witnessing the raw power and beauty of their performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, I’d seen up close the talent that keeps drawing audiences to halls and theatres all over the world. It’s these international theatres that actually play a pivotal role in Black Grace’s survival. 

“It’s a fine balance from a financial perspective because we have a very strong international touring strategy and that enables us to earn money off-shore. We’ll make more money over there in three months than we’ll make here in a year. And because we’re able to do that, we can take that money and channel it back into New Zealand. That’s the only way companies like ours can survive.”

Creative New Zealand’s funding of Black Grace on average makes up 45 to 50 percent of their total revenue for any given year, Mr Ieremia explains. As for the rest, “We don’t have a huge amount of sponsors in fact we don't have many sponsors.” 

Since 2002, Black Grace has become a charitable trust. The Artistic Director not only has his parents as his financial conscience, but also a “very, very strong board who are very, very smart and no-nonsense sorts of people” who, he assures, are not the kind “to come and tell me how great I am.”
Despite mentioning that perhaps this is a healthy thing to have since surely he has plenty of people telling him how great he is already, Mr Ieremia laughs, “Oh you’d be surprised!”

Neil Ieremia, who refuses to have a Facebook page and has just recently learnt to text (preferring to call instead) is a private, family oriented individual who cares about getting the basics right when honing his craft. Even if it means losing friends along the way.
“There are times in the multiple roles that I have where I have to bring out different versions of myself and that’s always hard for people around me to understand. But more and more, the people that have stayed with me over the years do understand and do know and appreciate the fact that when it is time to go we must all go, and when it’s time to relax, we should relax.”

Celebrations
Marking the occasion of Black Grace’s 20th anniversary celebrations are two sets of performances. Siva will be an elaborate, “massive, huge” performance, running for two nights only at the Aotea Centre. These will be followed by a series of smaller, regional performances, aptly named 20 for 20: twenty performances for $20 at the door. “I wanted to take something around the regions and the provinces.” 20 for 20 is for “the people who have supported Black Grace for 20 years but can’t get to Auckland or a main town centre because the ticket prices are pretty high for dances in general. The cheapest tickets are normally like $50 – and that’s for a C-reserve seat – that’s a lot of money for folks.”

Meanwhile, the calendar of Black Grace is full for the next two and a half to three years. “There’s so much work we have to turn things down.” The choreographer acknowledges just how lucky he is to be in the position he’s in, beating all the odds, and feeling “terribly blessed to be doing what I’m doing.”

Luck, however, probably has very little to do with the success Neil Ieremia and Black Grace have wrought. But some Chinese fortune cookies he bought at Ollie’s in New York during one of his first trips there, show otherwise. The first read, “You are on a quest for perfection.” The second: “You use your creativity to transform a business environment.” With the third, “Don’t forget your sense of humour” Neil Ieremia admits he’s had to remind himself about that often in the tough business of dance, but the rest certainly rings true in summing up the 20 year success and inspiring story of Black Grace. 

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