When Black Grace dances in unison, the effect is breathtaking.
Brightly percussive clapping and stomping, women thrown from one part of the stage to the other, and crystal clear jumps and turns from a modern dance lineage, this New Zealand-based company never stopped moving. In their recent performance at Kingsbury Hall, Black Grace demonstrated why they are icons of contemporary dance, earning oohs and ahs from the crowd and an extended standing ovation.
I have wanted to see Black Grace since their 2004 PBS documentary. At that time, the company was composed of men from Pacific, Maori, and New Zealand heritage. Since then, they have added women.
Founding Artistic Director and choreographer Neal Ieremia ONZM* is unapologetically directive. His directing style (as portrayed in the documentary) felt like a combination of a football coach and your meanest Russian ballet teacher. Black Grace’s website notably lacks a space for dancer biographies, but prominently features a header for “Founding Artistic Director.” Clearly, Black Grace was and remains his company, with his voice.
It was satisfying to see that voice unfold over the course of an evening via five selections from 22 years of his repertory. Presented in this way (rather than as one piece included in a bouquet of different choreographers), I could see what he wanted to talk about, how he wanted to say it, and with which kind of bodies.
This voice grappled with masculinity. In Ieremia’s bio he describes himself a Samoan working class kid who ‘broke his parents’ hearts’ with a dance career. During a brief segment of an upcoming 2017 work, three men struggle to connect but fail to find each other on stage, stuck in their own light paths. The concluding piece of the evening, 2016’s As Night Falls, addresses the topic of war and violence.
The opening piece, Minoi (1999), featured a pyramid of men, stomping, clapping, and chanting. A perfectly timed flick of left arm and head to stage right caused us all to audibly gasp.
As the evening progressed, the rushing from moment to moment left me feeling breathless. In those few moments of stillness when the artists were catching their breath, I caught mine too.
As Night Falls, the final piece of the evening. The stage had no wings or backdrop, illuminating golden statues of Greek war gods. Rows of dancers walking from stage left and right, pass through each other in a trance.
My favorite moment, a closing coda for As Night Falls, a duet between two of the female dancers ended too soon.
These dances are all very driven by/tied to the music.
Can a gal get a pair of pants?
Ieremia’s grappling with the gender roles that men play is great, but jarringly juxtaposed against his presentation of women. While I appreciated this struggle, I longed for a similar thoughtfulness about how he was presenting the female-bodied artists of the company. These bodies were on display…. in dresses… in every piece… in front of men… being thrown around.
Dancers are better with age.
By the end of the night, one understands why most of the (particularly female) dancers are so young. It was so hard! And aerobic! But the artists I couldn’t stop watching for their nuanced and emotional performance of the repertory were the older members of the company.
UtahPresents is killing it.
Accompanying the performance, UtahPresents worked with Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources on programming directed towards the rich Pacific Islander community in Salt Lake City. Through this show and the other works loveDANCEmore has reviewed this season (here and here), UtahPresents has demonstrated how NEA funding can enrich communities with thought-provoking, entertaining, and diverse performance and accompanying programs. I hope their example inspires other dance presenters in Salt Lake City (university dance departments, local dance companies who bring in outside choreographers, etc.) to undertake a similarly ambitious and relevant agenda.
*Via Wikipedia: In the 2016 Queen's Birthday Honours, Ieremia was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to dance.
Liz Ivkovich is the editor of the print edition of loveDANCEmore. She is putting her MFA in dance (Utah ‘16) to work for the University of Utah’s Sustainability Office and Global Change & Sustainability Center.