Bridging Cultures Through Music and Dance
By Mark Rudio
Throughout his career, Chris Lorway, Executive Director of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall, has been fortunate to attend performances around the globe. Repeat visits to the Melbourne and Auckland Festivals left an especially deep impression on him, in part due to truth and reconciliation processes between the governments and Aboriginal communities in those countries. The impact of these events has had a profound influence on the creation of new, important work that benefits performers and audiences alike. This season, Lorway is pleased to welcome two very different performing arts groups from that part of the world to Stanford: Australia’s Aboriginal music theater ensemble Black Arm Band, which performed at the Bing last month, and New Zealand’s Black Grace dance company, performing an afternoon program in Memorial Auditorium on March 19.
During the three-week-long Auckland Festival, Lorway learned of the ingrained ties between the Maori and other Aboriginal communities in the New Zealand area during weekly welcome ceremonies, presented by local Indigenous artists and community members to visiting guests (artists and presenters) as a way to introduce their culture through ceremony, music, and a shared meal. This time together prompts visitors to think about the history of the place and its people, the challenges that history presents, and how to move forward in a spirit of progress and reconciliation.
Similar efforts have also been underway in Lorway’s native Canada, gathering momentum after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report in 2015. And during the past couple of years, Lorway has observed the early rumblings of a similar movement here in the United States as more artists raise questions and include talking points during performances about issues such as land recognition and human rights. The results of the 2016 election might impact these trends, even more so concerning arts organizations’ ability to invite international artists and their willingness to perform in this country. It is a subject on the minds of performers and presenters across the globe, injecting questions and uncertainties onto the international stage.
To American ears, hearing the words “Black Grace” used together evokes a kind of quiet strength under adversity or perhaps a positive cultural stereotype reinforced by our nation’s entertainers and sports figures. To choreographer Neil Ieremia, the words represent the joining of two ideas born from personal and cultural conflict.
The results of the 2016 election might impact these trends, even more so concerning arts organizations’ ability to invite international artists and their willingness to perform in this country. It is a subject on the minds of performers and presenters across the globe, injecting questions and uncertainties onto the international stage.
In New Zealand, where Ieremia grew up in what he describes as “a fairly tough town” northeast of Wellington, black was a slang term used to describe bold, daring behavior. The young man who cavalierly asked the prettiest girl in school out on a date knowing full well he didn’t stand a chance—he was black. The boy who audaciously stood up to the bully who’d been beating on everyone all week, well aware he was in for a pummeling—he, too, was black. In Ieremia’s youth, those spunky, courageous people were called “black,” linking them to the neighborhood’s heroes, New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks, the national rugby team.
Ieremia was born in New Zealand to Samoan immigrants who arrived in the country during the 1960s. He was the youngest of four children, and illnesses kept him from actively participating in the country’s pervasive sports culture, which is heavily associated with masculinity. Seeking an outlet, he talked his parents into letting him study martial arts. Shortly after that, he also developed a passion for music, especially hip-hop, which was imported to New Zealand from the United States via the UK. Soon he was combining the two in the living room of his home, inspired by music videos and the sounds of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Samoan culture carried its own social and familial expectations, which Ieremia discovered when he decided to attend dance school at the age of 19. At his first ballet class, the instructor told him he lacked grace. Ieremia was undeterred. When he started his own dance company in 1995, he looked to his own experiences for a name representing the idea of an underdog’s success, one that would also capture his aspirations for dance and storytelling. Thus Black Grace was born, and it quickly stood out among New Zealand’s largely white and European-centric performing arts groups.
Since then, Black Grace has become one of New Zealand’s most successful dance companies at home and abroad. In 2004 it became the first New Zealand company to be invited to perform at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Festival, the oldest summer dance festival in the United States, where it made its American debut. Sold-out performances and critical success led to an invitation for the following year, and since then Black Grace has performed regularly in North America.
In the early years of Black Grace, Ieremia struggled with the collision of Samoan and New Zealand cultures. Questions of how and where one belongs were at the forefront of his work. Two decades later, he says it’s become more subconscious, but the questions persist as a continuous thread weaving itself through his work, “informed and transformed over the years by my New Zealandness, Samoan heritage, maturity, cultural changes, and an artist’s need to take stances at certain points of their career. Such thoughts also change when one becomes part of creating the culture.”
Artists who choose to represent a place or its people assume certain responsibilities, and achieving success to the point where they begin to create the culture creates a new set of concerns around artistic growth. Do such responsibilities inhibit the creative process or inspire it? Ieremia has had to wrestle with such questions as Black Grace developed and he matured, but the questions remained rooted in identity and culture. “Tall poppy syndrome,” a phrase referring to something that needs to be taken down when it grows too tall, is prevalent in New Zealand culture. Ieremia believes Black Grace was the recipient of such sentiments during the company’s first decade as he sought to expand its repertoire beyond its cultural roots. Enduring the criticism, he learned from the experience and used it to strengthen the company’s artistic growth.
Neil Ieremia’s father is a tulafale (a talking chief), but Ieremia and his siblings were raised without being taught their native language as a means of making their assimilation into New Zealand culture easier. As his father ages, Ieremia sees a gap looming as his father’s generation passes on, leaving future generations of New Zealand’s Samoans without experiences in traditional Samoan culture. How to bridge that gap is one of the questions currently on his mind, both as an artist and a Samoan New Zealander. The Samoans have a word for it, va, which means the space between things and between people. It’s a concept that informs his recent works.
As his father ages, Ieremia sees a gap looming as his father’s generation passes on, leaving future generations of New Zealand’s Samoans without experiences in traditional Samoan culture. How to bridge that gap is one of the questions currently on his mind, both as an artist and a Samoan New Zealander.
The creative process of Ieremia’s choreography begins with thinking beyond the immediate. He says, “I’m looking to create something that will exist beyond the performance and leave a mark in some way that goes beyond the 90 minutes we share with the audience—a moment of history or legacy for the audience to receive, a mark in the air, or something they can keep with them afterward.”
There are notable differences in the vocabularies between Polynesian and western dance. The accent, or emphasis, in Polynesian dance is grounded, where the beat is down. In western dance, the accent is up; one can observe this when counting the jumps in a ballet that result in the dancer being up in the air. Traditional Polynesian dance can lack counts altogether, and when they exist they are often used to reference the Earth or the ground itself. Polynesian dance is also a form of storytelling where one interprets the lyrics of the story with movement. References to old legends are plentiful, as are the gods, the heavens above, the oceans, and what lies beneath or flies above them.
Minoi, the first work on the Stanford program, is lighthearted and accessible, combining the Samoan dance style Fa’ataupati (slap dance) with western influences. In Ieremia’s view, “the Fa’ataupati is a way of psyching oneself up or preparing for something.”
Pati Pati is a medley of individual movements of earlier works reconfigured into a ritualistic piece encompassing both Fa’ataupati and Sasa styles of dance. Sasa (the syllables are equally stressed) is a Samoan dance form that tells a story through the use of hands, usually describing prosaic events such as doing chores, climbing trees, and gathering food.
The newest work on the Stanford Live program, Crying Men, is more challenging. It is heavily influenced by Ieremia’s conversations with a family member, a lawyer whose work with hardened criminals includes interviewing prisoners.
During these interviews, the lawyer found that at a certain point the prisoners would begin to cry, immediately prompting them to put their guard back up and resume the front of manliness. This moment would typically occur when the prisoners were discussing the moment when their lives had shifted for the worse, that point which eventually led them to prison, usually during childhood. In one instance, a prisoner talked about losing both of his parents and being sent to live with an aunt and uncle, both of whom were affiliated with gangs, and how his life was never the same after that.
As he thought about these conversations, Ieremia found himself asking the question, “Why do men find themselves unable to cry?” From that question the concept of Crying Men began to develop as a response to his own reluctance to be vulnerable and his own personal struggles in expressing vulnerability.
And so leremia has come full circle, revisiting one of Black Grace’s earliest themes, challenging the prevailing stereotypes about manliness. Another way to view it is through the concept of va, that space between things, and how what happens in that space transforms our lives and our art.
Mark Rudio is a freelance writer and the creative mind behind the award-winning performing arts website abeastinajungle.com.
Click here to purchase tickets for Black Grace on Sunday, March 19.