Black Grace Life O Le Olaga

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre - Aotea Centre, Auckland

04/09/2022 - 04/09/2022

James Hay Theatre, Christchurch

10/09/2022 - 10/09/2022

Opera House, Wellington

06/09/2022 - 06/09/2022

Production Details

Dances by Neil Ieremia

Presented by Black Grace

O Le Olaga (Life), set to a reimagining of Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major, is inspired by Ieremia’s childhood memories influenced by the traditional beat of his parents’ beloved homeland, Samoa, while navigating the tidal shifts of time and space; Fatu, meaning ‘heart’ in Samoan, is imagined by the work of renowned Samoan visual artist Fatu Akelei Feu’u (ONZM), and is set to a soundtrack of Te Vaka music accompanied by live percussion.

 For O Le Olaga (Life), Black Grace will once again collaborate with iconic New Zealand fashion house Zambesi on costume design.  Zambesi founder, Elisabeth Findlay (ONZM) and lead designer Dayne Johnston have created extraordinary costumes incorporating Pacific/Aotearoa inspired graphics and visuals for the tour.

 See Black Grace at its finest, bringing together an extraordinary company featuring some of New Zealand’s most accomplished contemporary and traditional Pacific dancers. 

For one performance only, Black Grace’s distinct style of “exhilarating, seemingly inexhaustible energy” (The New York Times), is not to be missed. 



Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre September 4, 5pm



Opera House 6 September, 7pm



James Hay Theatre 10 September, 7pm




 ‘Life – O Le Olaga’ - Dances by Neil Ieremia

Contemporary dance , Cultural activation , Dance , Family , Pasifika contemporary dance ,

1 hour 40 minutes

Life – O Le Olaga - reflective and deeply personal

Review by Dr Ian Lochhead 11th Sep 2022

The return of Black Grace to Christchurch after an absence of some years is very welcome and the James Hay Theatre was full to capacity for this, the final performance of their brief New Zealand tour.  The programme Neil Ieremia has devised spans the creative life of the company, from its opening season in 1995 to the present.  The period of enforced inaction precipitated by the global pandemic has prompted Ieremia to look back not only to his artistic beginnings but also to examine family connections and the ways in which these evolve over time.  The programme as a whole has a reflective and deeply personal dimension.

It begins with Handgame, an extract from Ieremia’s first full-length work, Relentless, an exploration of family violence and child abuse.   The company’s men, sitting on chairs arranged in an arc at the front of the stage, perform in silence, the only sounds coming from hands clapping and slapping their bodies.  While it is possible to simply enjoy the precision and the complex rhythms of the percussive sounds an underlying tension runs throughout the work, breaking through as hands quiver in barely suppressed rage.  As Ieremia reveals in the online programme, the slapping gestures relate to the work’s gestation in the shared experience of physical violence among its first performers.  The relentless percussive sounds are relieved by the introduction of song; although this formed part of the original version it has been brought up to date by the incorporation of the Lourde song, Royals, with its exploration of the aspirations of the underprivileged, who can only reach for the glamour of a different world.  Vocally, these dancers are as accomplished in song as they are in dance, reminding us of the indivisibility of voice and movement in Pacific culture. In this final performance of the tour Lourde’s anthem takes on additional resonance as the world focuses on the end of one reign and the beginning of another.  The conclusion of Handgame is starkly effective, as one by one the dancers, who have remained fixed in place throughout, rise and carry their chairs to the wings until only the central figure remains in the fading light.

The next work, Fatu, follows an onstage welcome and introduction to the works from Ieremia himself. It is his tribute to the pioneering Samoan visual artist, Fatu Feu’u, one of the founders of the contemporary Pacific art movement.  Prompted by the gift of a painting from the artist, Ieremia recreated the work in choreographic terms.  The painting itself is bold and gestural and the sweeping forms of white, red and gold seem to dance across a black ground.  The three performers, James Wasmer, Rodney Tyrell and Demi-Jo Manalo  capture the loose-limbed fluency of Fatu’s painting but Ieremia sets their movements within a geometrical framework of diagonals and orthogonals, that evoke the visual structure that is more usually associated with the artist’s works.  The lighting design by JAX projects a tivaevae-inspired pattern on the stage and directs shafts of light over the backcloth, creating the illusion that the performance is taking place within a three-dimensional version of a Fatu Feu’u painting.  This effect is enhanced by the music by Te Vaka and the live drumming of Isitolo Alesana.  Alesana also joins with members of the company to sing, O Lou Alofa, a hymn that the artist’s mother sang to Ieremia when he was a child.  Fatu is both a public and a very private work; after its performance we find a more recent gestural painting by Fatu Feu’u displayed in the foyer, allowing us to reflect again on the artistic transformation of a work from one medium to another and on the longstanding relationship of these two artists.

The programme’s third and final work is also the most complex.  If Fatu is the expression of a long and enduring friendship, O Le Olaga – Life is more personal still, a meditation on the choreographer’s relationship with his parents over the span of his own life.  While this was the immediate stimulus for the work it has evolved into a multi-layered exploration of much more than this; Ieremia’s influences in the cultural melting-pot of Porirua where he grew up and the wider artistic journey that he has followed.  The dancers are brought on stage one by one as a series of inanimate figures arranged as a static tableau that is suddenly brought to life by the music.  The choice of Vivaldi’s Gloria in D major may seem incongruous for a choreographer celebrating his Pacific heritage but Ieremia’s joking reference to Vivaldi as a famous ‘Samoan’ composer underlines the fundamental universality of all great music.  Its religious inspiration also reflects the powerful Christian faith of his parents. In choreographic terms it evokes one of Douglas Wright’s most compelling works, Gloria, in which Ieremia himself performed early in his career.  From the moment the dancers burst into movement another canonical work of contemporary dance is also evoked, Paul Taylor’s 1975 work, Esplanade, in which his dancers walk, skip and leap to the music of J.S. Bach’s violin concertos. The work has barely begun but already layers of meaning are unfolding.

Progressively the dance cultures of the Pacific are brought to the fore, the Cook Islands through veteran performer and teacher, Tuaine Robati, Samoa by Jasmine Leota, Aotearoa through the taiha of Edmund Eramiha and poi from Kura Te Ua, emphasising the multiple cultures that underpin Black Grace’s repertoire.  These episodes are interspersed with and overlie the movements of Vivaldi’s sacred work, claiming the music of the European baroque world as part of the cultural inheritance of the Pacific.  While this plays out in the foreground a slow-moving drama is taking place at the back of the stage against a brightly coloured floral background. A female figure in ghostly white slowly moves across the stage to eventually reach a male slumped on the ground by a chair; they are impassively watched by a reclining figure.  The meaning of this slow-moving tableau is enigmatic; is it the life journey of Ieremia’s parents observed by their son? What is clear is that O Le Olaga – Life is a reaffirmation of the artist’s career performed as a tribute to his parents.  Ieremia has made no secret of the fact that a life in dance was not the career his parents wished for him, but what parents, seeing this work, would not be proud?

At the end, Ieremia and Black Grace received thunderous applause from an enthusiastic audience.  We can only hope the warmth of this reception will encourage them to return to the chilly south before too long.


  • Copyright © belongs to the reviewer


Make a comment

Black Grace - Richness, depth and elegance of O le Olaga

Review by Cilla Brown 05th Sep 2022

After a hiatus of cancelled tours due to the pandemic, Black Grace returns to Aotearoa following an American tour. Despite it being Father’s Day, the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre is a full house. Black Grace pulls in a mass of an audience, especially with only one night in Auckland. The audience members are cosmopolitan varying in ages from pre-walkers, children, youth to over 65’s.

The show is organised into three works. The opening work is Handgame a rendition of Ieremia’s 1995 work. It is inspired by a newspaper article about a domestic violence case that resulted in the death of a child. The curtain rises revealing a row of male performers seated on chairs. The bright LED long tube lights over hanging the stage are similar to the lights in fale (houses) in Samoa reflecting the colourful interiors of village life. In the background is an array of figures also seated dressed in what appear to look like orange and white PPE gear. The front row starts the dance…a noisy Sasa set on chairs. They sing a humorous tune, a Pacific version of Royals by Lorde reworded by Ieremia. Whilst the audience giggle at the comical revamped lyrics, there could be reference here to the controversy surrounding the song through a post from American journalist Veronica Bayetti Flores, claiming that it had racist narratives.

Throughout the modified song, the dancers skilfully work through rhythmic organized pandemonium – slapping of the body, clicking, clapping and foot stomping intertwined with graceful Samoan Siva movements. These sounds mimic body slapping and perhaps is a subtle insight to suggestive sub text of the key theme. Domestic violence is a difficult subject for talanoa (talk or discussion). Handgame, the brightness of the orange and white combined with comical song and Sasa presents this theme delicately, without intrusion.

The second work is called Fatu (Samoan for heart), inspired by Fatu Akelei Feu’u a Samoan visual artist. JAX Messenger sets the stage with a palate of Pacific patterns shone beautifully onto the stage floor. The patterns texture and weave like shape give the illusion of sitting in a fale (house) on a fala (mat). It begins with the drumming of Isitolo Alesana, infused with the resonant singing of “O lou Alofa” (My love) by Vincent Farane, Leki Jackson- Bourke and Aisea Latu. The overtone of the melodious male voices to this Samoan song warms the audience up to a smooth, subtle, seductive solo by Demi Jo-Manalo, whose petite body elegantly glides through the resonant singing like a gentle, fluid, moving bird.

The vicious masculine beat of Te Vaka ascends on the stage where James Wasmer and Rodney Tyrell perform an equally elegant duet. This is followed by the three dancers dashing spritely, like paint strokes, across the patterned canvas floor. The choreography is layered, mixed with martial arts, heritage and contemporary Pacific movements. The colours of the costumes are rich shiny red, white and gold, mirroring the colours of the painting Fatu Akelei Feu’u sent to Ieremia during one of the New Zealand lockdowns, the inspiration for the piece.

The third work, O le Olaga begins with Aisea Latu singing Malu A’E le Afiafi. The song is an old romantic love song perhaps chosen for period in which the song came out by the Samoan seventies band, “The Five Stars”. Aisea is joined by the ensemble of the core cast in a chorus of beautifully crafted bird-like choreography mixed with Siva. If this was a digital work I would press rewind a few times.

The works mood is transformed with the hymn of Gloria by Vivaldi. Although this composition adds elegance and gravity, it consumes most of this third section. It also subtly it suggests colonial tones. I feel reference of religion and its large influence on Pacific Island life. For much of the choreography of O le Olaga we see the dancers aapa atu I le lagi (reaching for the sky). Perhaps this emulates godliness and holiness, reinforcing the significance of religion. In addition, I feel like the mamalu (grace) of the Siva Samoa solo of the talented Jasmine Leota is somehow partially missed, as I half expect the Samoan igi guitar strings to start dancing with her. I do note her beautiful costume and head adornment .

The pieces within O le Olaga collide and weave in and out of each other. Its is a fono (meeting) of cultures in the shape of dance. One of the highlights for me is the magical unfaltering Māori section performed by Kura Te Ua and Edmund Eramiha.

The themes of some sections are somewhat uncertain. For example, as the Cook Island drum starts and I expect the female dancers to start romantic fast paced ura…but we experience male dancing.  One of the female dancers briefly mimics the romantic fast paced ura for five seconds. I suddenly hear a male tone in the row behind me gasp with excitement at the sight of her ura. I roll my sarcastic Samoan eyes and realign my attention to what seems like a tease of this esteemed cultural dance.

The core cast are dressed by Zambesi in what appears to be “matrix meets opposing flamboyant Pacific lycra”. Indeed, the fit cast look glorious in these garments, but it is their dance skill and execution of Ieremia’s choreography that creates the majesty of the work.

The back drop of O le Olaga is a white wall covered in slashes of paint. Two figures, one covered white on the left and one covered black on the right loom close to the wall, as if they are bound by the wall, as they do not leave the space.

At times the vastness of the theatre created a va (space) between the performers and the audience. The largeness sometimes drowned out the live singing and drum beats. From my seat I was unable to view the facial expressions of the dancers.

Overall, the choreography, tones, lighting and dancing of the three works is masterful. Themes that run through the works are shades of violence, compassion, alofa (love), godliness and cultural collision. The audience is treated to a mesmerizing dance theatre experience with the energetic athletic skill of the dancers’ bodies gliding, wrapping and echoing through the air.

I extend my loto faafetai (gratitude) and faaaloalo (respect) to Mr Ieremia, his parents, good lady and wider aiga potopoto (extended family). In Pacific culture faaaloalo (respect) is given to our elders and this work, through the lens or Ieremia and his aiga exhibits toa (bravery) sharing intimate experiences and themes of their olaga.

O le Olaga received a well-deserved standing ovation. Theatre goers will walk away with the gift of richness, depth and elegance of the journey that embodies O le Olaga.


  • Copyright © belongs to the reviewer


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council