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New Zealand's Black Grace offers up vivid cultural dialogues

by Lewis J Whittington
February 22, 2015
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
3680 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
215 898 3900
The New Zealand dance troupe Black Grace warmed up a cold Valentine's weekend on the Annenberg Center stage. It joined the seven international companies that Dance Celebration artistic director Randy Swartz programmed one of Dance Celebration's most electric seasons.

Formerly an all-male ensemble, the company of ten now has two women, which allows artistic director-choreographer Neil Ieremia to present even more vocabulary and stories of New Zealand/Pacific Island dance. Ieremia authentic vernacular with contemporary style often with mystical results, and just as often, his infectious hybrid that celebrate cultural mixes.

Four short works comprised the first half of the Feb. 14 program, followed by Ieremia's three-part work, "Gathering Clouds."

"Minoi" with traditional Samoan music (arranged by Ieremia) was danced by six men, bare-chested and dressed in inky blue sarongs. In tight geometric formations they engaged in ritualized clapping and slapping of their chests and legs in razor sharp unison; arms slicing the air like sabers and shifting gears as they chanted numbers in their own language and eventually translated it into English. The ritual also acted as an invocation for the evening.

"Pati Pati" scored to music by Ieremia and Juse, also has the feel of ritual, with the full ensemble seated and breathing as one, arching their bodies up, pulsing together or vaulted in low to the ground layouts, back to tight formations. Like the first piece there was Fa-ataupati (slap dance) rhythmic movement and the steely focus of the dancers was hypnotic.

"Method," had the dancers in white togs moving in and out of a large circle spotlight to the music of Bach, with fast twists and body drops. Men pulling, shoving, colliding, and lifting each other in a dreamscape memory of Ieremia's memories of rugby field physicality, competition and camaraderie. "Mother, Mother" choreography for NZ reggae band's Fat Freddy's Drop video, is dedicated to Ieremia's mother and featured flash duets and an intense athletic solo by Sarah Baron.

In comments before the final performance, Ieremia joked about New Zealand culture being very distinct from that of Australia. He loves being a New Zealander and is equally proud of his Samoan heritage. He recounted also the difficult experiences émigré experienced and in his piece "Gathering Clouds" was Ieremia's response to an outside politician's derogatory and clueless remarks about islanders trying to emigrate to New Zealand.

Ieremia appears wearing a mask a la Bruce Lee from his stint as Kato on televison's The Green Hornet series. Ieremia explained that it was to mask his Asian eyes perceived as offensive by racist studio bosses, he uses as representative of absurd perceptions of Asia by the west. Ieremia was positioned in front of an island dancer in headdress and garland representing the enduring language of island dance.

The middle section scored to sacred songs by Elvis, explored religious colonization by western preachers and the 'dawn raids' in the 1970s of Pacific Island immigrants who officials sought to demonize and expel for being a 'drain' on New Zealand. The final section "Keep Honor Bright" scored to Bach's "Goldberg Variations" had the strongest variation work and choreographic arc. Ultimately, the work was a triumphant manifesto of Ieremia's cultural dialogues.

"Gathering Clouds" has so many compelling aspects on this theme, yet it has the feel of a strong middle draft still in development. The company was tight in the unison work, but the dancers have varying strengths in aerial work, free dance and phrase polish. Ieremia's vernacular is expansive, but he can also circle back too often to signature moves. But, without a doubt the esprit of this ensemble, not to mention Ieremia's unique voice, was thrilling dance theater.
Black Grace's 'Gathering Clouds'. Photo courtesy of Black Grace.

Black Grace's "Gathering Clouds". Photo courtesy of Black Grace.

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