nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 18, 2005
New Zealand is about as far away a place on Earth from New York as it's possible to be. So it's a privilege to get to see Black Grace, one of New Zealand's premier dance companies, perform at the New Victory Theatre this season, in an enormously entertaining and exciting show featuring seven of their signature pieces. Choreographed by company founder/artistic director Neil Ieremia, the show incorporates traditional Samoan rituals and dances along with more contemporary styles, all set to an eclectic blend of music ranging from Bach to Chico Hamilton to the Kronos Quartet. Muscular, energetic, playful, and constantly surprising, Ieremia's dances are unlike anything I've ever seen; the 80-minute program left me hungry for much, more more.
The evening commences with a two-part prologue, performed by the seven Black Grace dancers, Sam Fuataga, Sean MacDonald, Tamihana Paurini, Daniel Cooper, Jeremy Poi, Ueta Siteine, and Taane Mete. (The company is an all-male troupe, though there are three female guest dancers performing in this program.) The first piece is "Traditional Challenge/Hand Game," an excerpt from a longer piece in which the dancers engage in movements reminiscent of kids at play, culminating in a thrilling synchronized hand game, where the dancers create spectacular percussion using various parts of their bodies. It's followed by "Fa'a Ulutao," a more balletic work based in the Tatau, a rite of passage in which young Samoan men receive a tattoo.
Following a brief introductory message, the program continues with "Minoi," the company's signature piece, a delightful and exuberant chorale to a traditional Samoan counting song. The harmonies created here by Black Grace, in voice and in movement, are gorgeous.
The next dance is "Deep Far," which is the most serious piece on the itinerary, reflecting on the nature of weather and inspired by a season of drought. The music is "Whirl-Y-Reel 1 (Beard and Sandals Mix)" by Afro Celt Sound System, with evocative and unusual modern sounds that are complemented by Ieremia's tight, almost constricted choreography inside geometric spaces created by the lights (lighting design, which is excellent throughout, is by Jeremy Fern).
"Open Letter," which closes the first act, is a dance for two women (guest artists Abby Crowther and Desiree Westerlund). It's a vivid meditation on connection and loss, in which the dancers' movements and the colors and shapes of their swirling costumes take precedence over narrative or characterization; something that I found provocative and fascinating.
The longest piece of the evening comes right after intermission. "Human Language" puts the male dancers in suave but casual attire—jeans with button-down shirts in different earthtones—and the women in elegant, brightly colored dresses with layers and layers of filmy petticoats underneath. The first segment is funny and surreal: the men blow up balloons while the women dance to the sounds they make. (The surreal touch is a giant rabbit that incongruously turns up.) Then, the mood heats up, as the dancers team up (in the only boy/girl pairings of the evening) for some romance of varying intensities, culminating in a gorgeous and joyous release of youthful emotion reminiscent of Jerome Robbins's West Side Story. The finale of this piece is a paean to Broadway choreography, yet so spectacularly original that I can't wait for Ieremia to try his hand at that form.
Black Grace concludes with a lovely series of danced variations to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, in which each of the company members gets a moment to express his individuality in moves tailored to his body. It's a lovely and entirely fitting end to a show in which the dancers are all celebrated separately and as parts of a smoothly functioning and flowing team.