When Neil Ieremia was young, he suffered from rheumatic fever, damaging one of his heart valves and leaving his physical outlets limited. Instead of practicing martial arts like the other boys in the Maori neighborhood of Wellington, New Zealand, where he grew up, Ieremia spent time dancing around at home to music.
"I didn't have any training," recalled Ieremia, whose dance company Black Grace will perform at Stanford University on March 19. "I just sort of made it up as I went along."
At the age of 13, he started dancing at a local church, even though "dancing wasn't one of those things you did," he said.
After graduating from high school, Ieremia started working as a bank clerk and was on his way to fulfilling the basic expectations his Samoan parents, who immigrated to New Zealand in the 1960s, had envisioned for him: work, have a family, buy a house, go to church.
However, at the age of 18, one pivotal experience sent Ieremia's life in a radically different direction.
A project through his local church saw him involved in the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games (an athletic competition between the nations of the former British Empire), where he was first exposed to professional dancers.
Ieremia was part of a very small choreographic team associated with the nonprofit World Vision, which helped organize the event. By the end of it, he was "roped into" performing in a ceremony that combined traditional dancing from different countries with contemporary and modern dancing.
The experience, which Ieremia called "inspirational," prompted him to quit his job at the bank and enroll in dance school.
"My mother was in tears, and my father he didn't talk to me," he said.
Despite his parents' shock, Ieremia went to dance school later that year, where he learned classical technique, taking classes in ballet, rhythm, percussion, improvisation and theater.
After training for a year, he was invited to join the Douglas Wright Dance Company, where he danced for two years before freelancing. All the while, Ieremia noticed that the stories people were telling through dance weren't from his neighborhood, his culture; more and more, Ieremia felt "compelled to do that."
He'd always wanted to start his own group one that would involve different aspects of his culture, from singing, to dancing, to acting, all in a professional context.
With the help of a grant, he started Black Grace, which began in 1995 with 10 men of Pacific Islander and Maori descent. His first work was a dance about the stereotyping of males.
"Very few men were involved in dance," he said. "In other parts of the world, dance has always been part of the cultural fabric; in New Zealand, it wasn't as acceptable."
Ieremia described his choreography as energetic, highlighting the sheer physicality of the body and blending traditional, indigenous dance with modern dance. Because Ieremia has created his own aesthetic, pulling from different traditions, it's fitting that the dancers in his company undergo an atypical training regimen.
Dancers might run up and down Mount Eden, Auckland's highest volcanic cone, or go to the park and do hill sprints, or participate in various games, all in an effort to "mix it up," have fun and remember that the goal is to tell stories that honor their place in the Pacific's history and heritage.
The program Black Grace will be performing at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium -- "Minoi, Pati Pati, and Crying Men" (new work) -- will explore cultural identity. To delve into this theme, Ieremia worked with his own experience, which he described as the "collision of being a New Zealand-born Samoan, feeling like you don't quite belong in either country."
Just as he did at the outset, Ieremia continues to engage with entrenched ideas of masculinity and what he described as "warrior culture" within the male Pacific Island and Maori context. His piece "Crying Men," an excerpt of which is part of the program, poses questions such as "What kind of hangover are we feeling from the past?" and "What are the ideas of what men should look like or how they should behave?"
While some pieces are inspired by Ieremia's own experience, others are informed by world events. For the piece "As Night Falls," Ieremia took many news stories from around the world and transformed them into smaller vignettes that form a larger picture. The piece touches on nationalism, xenophobia, the denial of refugees and responses to terrorist acts.
For this piece in particular, Ieremia's process involved reading newspapers from all over the world for a year, from the Guardian, to the Telegraph, to the Washington Post, to the New York Times, to newspapers in New Zealand, and viewing various documentaries. The result was a collection of stories and imagery, one of which made a lasting impression on Ieremia: It was the image of a father shielding his son, both of whom were killed in an airstrike in Aleppo.
"That was the turning point for me," Ieremia said. "I try and find a positive out of this (process) ... (The image) captured the good and the bad -- a father desperately trying to protect his son."
In exploring this dark subject matter, Ieremia stressed that he strives to create something beautiful in response to the often-horrific news, in an attempt to take some of the darkness and turn it into positivity and light.
"I see the work that I make as a real opportunity to tell stories and to communicate and to reflect society back at itself; it's a vehicle," he said.
What: Black Grace presents "Minoi, Pati Pati, and Crying Men" (new work)
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford
When: Sunday, March 19, 2:30 p.m.
Info: Stanford Live