In 20 years Neil Ieremia has broken boundaries of New Zealand dance with Black Grace, taken his vision to the world and won over more than a few Kiwi blokes

It's morning and Neil Ieremia already sounds a little weary. There's a sigh and a pause when he picks up the phone, as though he's steeling himself to step out on stage.

Look at his schedule and the reason becomes clear. A family man, who founded world-class dance company Black Grace, he takes a breather when he can. Flights between destinations are his solace - valuable time to think and reflect, without interruption.

He has just landed on home soil after choreographing a project for Melbourne Arts Festival.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is rehearsing one of his works to take to Europe, there's a piece for the 2016 Auckland Arts Festival in the pipeline and Black Grace has started its 20 for 20 - a tour celebrating two decades of dance.


Twenty years of blood, sweat ... and more sweat.

That's one thing that hasn't changed, especially as dancers push to rehearse the anniversary show Ieremia put together before jetting off to Holland and France.

They have been familiarising themselves with a collection of works from the company's history.

Among them, the ever-popular Minoi, Method and Human Language - as well as new routines by original Black Grace members Sean MacDonald and Siaosi Mulipola.

Scratch the surface of Black Grace and there is much more to be seen than innovation and raw talent. Every movement tells a story; a rich tapestry of tradition pulled from the South Pacific and presented with equal elements of power and finesse.

Ieremia has been the glue holding it all together for the past 20 years. Make no bones about it, he is tough, hailing from a small town and a traditional family means he has always had to fight for his passion.

The kid from Porirua just wanted to move and started his own dance group at the age of 13. His parents "thought I was crazy", but he had no choice but to stay strong and stick to his guns.

"I had been working in a bank at the time, I was supposed to find a wife, have children, become the mayor of Porirua," he says. "It broke their hearts when I told them I was going to dance school - Mum cried, Dad made that tut-tutting noise with his tongue and didn't talk to me, my siblings were supportive but hesitant."

He trained with the best, strove to perfect every step, and in 1995 created his own company - a celebration of culture and movement unlike anything audiences had seen before - from scratch.

Even then Black Grace, now renowned for its trademark energy and breathtaking physicality, was bigger than Ieremia. "I had an image, I wanted it to be something that would go on, I don't see the point if it's not lasting. I tend to go after things that require commitment and endeavour. It was a huge risk to start Black Grace, people were a bit excited, a bit confused but there was an unprecedented level of interest.

"We didn't have to work to get people interested, we were this group of 10 guys dancing. The first show sold out, so we added more nights and we were able to get some money to do more."

Packed halls have not always been their experience in New Zealand though they have been fortunate to gain a following overseas.

In 2004 the company made its American debut, performing a sold-out season at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival - and has been asked to return every year since. Black Grace takes up the offer every second year but next year's calendar is so packed it has been forced to postpone until 2017.

Determination has led to groundbreaking achievements, awards, accolades and even piqued the interest of more than a few Kiwi blokes, who have become a regular fixture at their shows.

"Certainly our demographic is an interesting one - we have young kids and older people, a lot of men, surprisingly. We have had to blaze a trail, hack through the bush and find our own path. It was tough, I'm a tough person - you have to be if you want to be the best."

Striving for perfection is Ieremia's way of creating something that exceeds expectation but that all-or-nothing mentality has come with its own lessons.

He returned from a sabbatical overseas in 2005 to find all but two dancers and a caretaker had walked out. At the time he had to wonder if it was worth putting it all back together. Good advice put him on the right track and he now looks at that time of his life as a period of change.

"I demand the best from those around me. It's the same pressure I apply to myself, you have got to hustle if you want to be the best.

"I lost some of my best friends - some of my closest friends in Black Grace I lost at that time, it was really hard. There were a lot of people hoping I would shut it down, but I wanted to keep it going."

Almost 10 years later and with self-reflection on his side, the company is in a good space and Ieremia hopes it will be his legacy long after he's gone. "I would love it to go for another 100 years, I will just be a photo on the wall or a hologram. Maybe I could teach a class?"

At the very least he hopes to keep dancing, "at least nodding my head", for the rest of his days.



20 for 20 Black Grace anniversary tour

Where and when:

Mangere Arts Centre, Urbanesia Festival, November 19. For more dates see: