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Black Grace Looks Back to Move Forward

by Bonnie Rosenstock
November 22, 2019
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
As artistic director and choreographer Neil Iremia tells it, Black Grace, the name of his Auckland, New Zealand-based company, comes from two memorable times in his life. During an informal talk on October 30 (the company run was October 29-November 3), moderated by Laura Diffenderfer, Associate Director of Marketing at The Joyce, he explained that “black” is an expression from his youth growing up in a tough working class neighborhood in Wellington. “It describes someone who is brave and daring, like if you took on the school bully or asked a girl out on a date, even though you had no chance in either,” he said. “Like our national rugby team,” he sighed.

And “grace” is something his ballet teacher told him he lacked. (He began his formal dance training at age 19.) So, joked the charismatic Iremia, that seemed an appropriate name for his initially all-male company, which he founded in 1995. Women, who were added three years later, “brought a real energy and vitality to the company,” he said.

Iremia, a New Zealander of Samoan heritage, fuses contemporary dance and hip-hop with traditional Maori and Pacific Islander dance. “Kiona and the Little Bird Suite” (World Premiere) is a collection of traditionally inspired works and excerpts from the company’s repertoire. It used body percussion influenced by Samoan seated dance and slap dance that included drumming, chanting, singing and the slapping of one’s body. The drumming was performed live by master musician Isitolo Alesana. The company’s five men and five women of predominately Pacific Islander heritage danced barefoot with razor-sharp synchronized movements in a circle, in tight lines, on the floor, rocking or moving their stretched-out arms with palms together from one side of their bodies to the other. Their bodies maintained an overall angularity, with sharp, fast, ritualistic movements. It was quite beautiful, hypnotic and engrossing.

The extraordinary “Crying Men” (2018, excerpts) traces the journey of three generations of Pacific Islander men, living in a new land and dealing with the impact of the loss of a matriarch who brought balance, compassion, tolerance and strength to the traditional expectations of what it means to be masculine. One of Ieremia’s inspirations for this piece was artist Grayson Perry’s “The Descent of Man” (2016), which got him interested in the idea of toxic masculinity. “Being a Pacific Islander male we were taught to be strong, not cry. We laugh now, but at the time it was terrible. We’d be getting a hiding and crying, told to stop crying, and if you couldn’t stop, they would hit you, but you couldn’t stop crying if you were getting hit.

“It got me thinking, why shouldn’t we cry and express our feelings to communicate how we feel,” he said. “Pre-contact with Christianity, our society was matriarchal. When missionaries arrived, it got turned around and became very patriarchal because of the priests being men in charge. The space between brothers and sisters changed.”

“Crying Men” is a first-time collaboration with award-winning New Zealand playwright Victor Rodger of Samoan and P?keh? heritage, who created the narrative framework. It was narrated by Nathaniel Lees, a well-known New Zealand actor of Samoan descent, and featured new commissioned music by hip-hop artists Anonymouz & Submariner.

This piece is the most traditional and ritual-infused of the four works, but also speaks in contemporary language. On audience stage right downstage there were three performers in white face who had three stick-like structures jutting out of their big-haired wigs. There was a bowl of water in front of them, and one of the dancers wrung out the water with a rag. The narrator spoke in which the most significant words were “My life is broken.” Other dancers held hands, did little side-to-side jumps, ran quickly in place, rolled up and down onto the floor. There were struggles. A fine sequence was where a macho type did everything to get the attention of one of the women, including puffing up his chest, but she outdid him.

The other two pieces were set to classical music and were more contemporary in outlook. While the hard-working company proved their mettle, these pieces didn’t have the same impact as the above two and both seemed to end abruptly. “As Night Falls - Abridged” (2016), accompanied by selections from Vivaldi compositions, took its themes from news stories and images around the world: airstrikes, refugees, terrorist attacks, protests and natural disasters. “Method” (2000), music by J.S. Bach, was more playful, as it recalled memories of boyhood games. It featured the dancers running on and off stage, doing impressive lifts and a sequence of pushing and jumping over rolling bodies.

A very satisfying evening of new discoveries from a fascinating company which I hope will grace our shores again soon.
Black Grace dance company in 'As Night Falls'.

Black Grace dance company in "As Night Falls".

Photo © & courtesy of Christopher Duggan

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