Ornate designs adorn Neil Ieremia's right forearm and left shoulder—but where most “tribal” tattoos designate only the wearer's desire to stand out in a crowd, these have real significance.
On one level, they're a sign that Ieremia is of Samoan heritage; the swirling lines and triangles he sports are derived from those inscribed on young men who've undergone certain traditional rites of passage. Ieremia's tattoos also celebrate his deep love and respect for his father, a “talking chief” who, after reconnecting with his cultural heritage, had similar forms inked into his skin while in his early 60s. And, finally, they're a clue to Ieremia's work as a choreographer—and especially to Surface, one of several works his Black Grace troupe will present at the Vancouver Playhouse on March 18 and 19, as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival.
In Surface, Ieremia explains, the dancers' movements echo the arcs and patterns of Samoan pe'a tattooing. And, like the tattoos themselves, the dance also tells an abstract story of strength and fortitude—qualities that the Porirua, New Zealand–born choreographer sees in his Pacific Island forebears, and that have characterized his own rise to international prominence.
“I'm always telling stories,” Ieremia explains in an early-morning phone call from New York City. “The first time I made a dance, I listened to the words of the song that I was using, and I basically interpreted the words through the movement. That was my very, very first and humble experience with choreography—and essentially right to this day I'm still telling stories.”
Naturally, many of those stories have to do with Ieremia's heritage. “Artists are always exploring identity issues,” he notes, and that's especially true of artists who've experienced racism—an ongoing problem in New Zealand, as elsewhere. Another work that Ieremia will excerpt at VIDF, Gathering Clouds, is a direct response to a prominent Auckland-based economist's widely publicized claim that Samoans, Fijians, and other Pacific Island immigrants represent a drain on the New Zealand economy.
“It caused a lot of pain and suffering in the community,” Ieremia reports. “And, being an artist and being a Pacific islander, I felt that I needed to respond to these claims.”
The more overtly narrative Gathering Clouds touches on the importance of family in Pacific Islands culture, and on the postcolonial forces that led people like the choreographer's parents to seek a better life in New Zealand. “The third section,” Ieremia adds, “is sort of a celebration of who we are, and an acknowledgement of the challenges that we face. It's my way of also, hopefully, showing my skill and my expertise as a choreographer.”
Ieremia's Samoan heritage is central to his work; as he explains, even the way that Black Grace's dancers squat and lunge is based on his understanding that Polynesian bodies move differently than European ones. But don't get the impression that Black Grace is any kind of folk-dance troupe: Ieremia is an extremely skilled modern-dance artist who just happens to carry some impressive Samoan ink.
“I'm very focused on who I am,” he says, “but I'm not so focused that I forget where I am. I'm not a traditional choreographer; I don't set out to make modern versions of traditional dances. I understand my history and I understand my family and my community—but I'm a choreographer just like every other choreographer, if you know what I mean.”