Choreographer Neil Ieremia of New Zealand grew up with a passion for dance. His country, however, had different views on masculinity and what young boys should study.
In 1995, he bridged the gap with Black Grace, a cultural contemporary dance company combining athleticism and force with agility and elegance. It started as an all-male troupe but is now co-ed and considered a leader in New Zealand's growing contemporary dance scene.
In February, Black Grace kicked off a nine-city North American tour, which will bring it to Byham Theater, Downtown, on Saturday as part of the Pittsburgh Dance Council's 2012-13 season.
During the past 18 years, Black Grace has carved a foothold in the contemporary dance world with choreography that melds modern with more traditional movements from Pacific culture.
"Different people have come and gone. Neil's work has grown and developed over the years since the beginning, but he still keeps his high-energy, exciting kind of a feel to it," says dancer Sean MacDonald, who has been involved with the company since its conception. "The philosophy of the company has always stayed the same in terms of the culture."
This concoction of stamina-testing steps and culturally inspired concepts for dances has served Black Grace well, earning Mr. Ieremia several honors, including the 2005 Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award for his contributions to the country's arts scene.
The dancers who bring these works to life come from mixed backgrounds. Some are formally trained dancers with extensive ballet training. Others hail from the hip-hop world or athletics. Black Grace also offers a youth movement program, which has contributed a few artists to the company. In Pittsburgh, close to a dozen dancers will perform three works from the Black Grace repertoire: "Pati Pati," "Amata" and its latest full-length piece, "Vaka."
"It's an hour and a half of physical, physical dance with lots of great music, lots of New Zealand music," ranging from a harp to electronic sounds, Mr. MacDonald says.
"Pati Pati" is strongly influenced by traditional Samoan dance and filled with body percussion. "Amata" is about a new beginning, a nod to the new start Black Grace underwent when it added female dancers. The piece uses abstract choreography to create visuals reminiscent of colorful woven mats with intricate patterns.
"Vaka," which means "canoe," is in part based on "The Raft" video installation by artist Bill Viola and painting "The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand" by Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie. At the time it was created, the world was responding to a tsunami in Japan and an earthquake in Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand.
"We talked a lot about humanity in that piece, and how it takes a disaster for people to show humility to each other," says dancer Zoe Visvanathan.
It also touches on migration and raises the question: "If you were forced to move, what would you take and what would you hold near?"
"It's your own metaphor for what's on your own raft," Mr. MacDonald says.
The universality of dance has brought Black Grace success at home and on the road.
"We hope you can come and have a good time and enjoyment," he says. "Then there's 'Vaka' that makes you think about humanity, hopefully reaching out to fellow human beings and being there to help, respecting fellow man and woman."
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM