Can Black Grace persuade New Orleans Saints fans to come to a dance concert? The group has attracted an equally skeptical crowd in its native New Zealand, where its blend of rugby moves, traditional Samoan body drumming and modern dance elements has found an audience, even among sports fans.
Black Grace will perform at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts on Saturday (Feb. 28) as part of the main stage season of the New Orleans Ballet Association. It's the New Orleans debut for this troupe of seven men and three women, which has performed to acclaim worldwide.
Founded in 1995 by choreographer Neil Ieremia, the group began as an all-male ensemble - a rarity in the world of modern dance.
"At the start, I needed to work with bodies similar to my own," Ieremia said. "When I had danced in other companies, I had always been in a minority - the only Pacific Islander, the only male, usually the only straight male," Ieremia said. "I was very physical in my approach to dance. I didn't like choreography that left me standing still and fluttering my hands for half an hour. In my dancing and in my choreography, I'm inspired by my country's sports heritage. I grew up playing games in the backyard - and that gave me a natural vocabulary when I made work for male dancers: speed, impact, and sudden changes of direction."
What:The acclaimed New Zealand dance troupe makes its New Orleans debut.
When: Saturday (Feb. 28), 8 p.m.
Where: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in Armstrong Park.
Admission: Tickets for Black Grace start at $24 and may be purchased through the New Orleans Ballet Association box office at 504.522.0996 orwww.NOBAdance.com, and through Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000 orwww.ticketmaster.com. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups.
More: A pre-performance talk with artistic director Neil Ieremia will take place at 7:15 p.m. at the theater.
Ieremia also draws on his Samoan heritage in his choreography - you can see it in the percussive body slaps and stamping footfalls of his dancers - but he doesn't pretend to be staging ethnographic dances.
"I was born in New Zealand. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in a family where my parents had ambitions for all four of their children," Ieremia said. "I'm not trying to reproduce the Polynesian past. In fact, the first time I choreographed a dance it was set to an Amy Grant song. I was 13 years old and made up the dance because I was bored at the mixed-race Baptist church that my family attended. Still, there are many Samoan things in my work. I love the way that traditional Polynesian dance blurs boundaries between singing and storytelling, theater and dance, for example. But I'm not interested in having to justify each foot stamp to a purist."
The NOBA program concludes with one of Ieremia's most ambitious works, "Gathering Clouds." This 60-minute piece is Ieremia's response to a claim, made by a New Zealand economist, that Pacific Island immigrants were a drain on the country's economy. Its three movements suggest Ieremia's complex relationship with his heritage and his present. The first movement is set to drumming and chanting from the Pacific Islands, the second is set to the music of Elvis Presley and recorded news headlines, and the third is set to Bach's "Goldberg Variations."
"I know where I am from, but I have always hated the assumption that I should be limited to my own heritage," Ieremia said. "Bach and Elvis belong to me, too. My company is the place where I let the rich collective history of the world come together. I'm a citizen of the world."