Thursday, March 21, 2013

Black Grace - a Journey Through Dance

We went to see Black Grace last night at the Ordway.   To describe the performance as amazing would be an understatement. Black Grace is New Zealand's leading contemporary dance company, fusing traditional Pacific cultural dance with modern dance styles.  Artistic Director and Choreographer Neil Ieremia started the company back in 1995, and his group has toured internationally in the U.S., Australia, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Canada.

Athletic.  Rhythmic.  Mesmerizing.  Precise.  Energetic.  These were some of the words I wrote down as I watched the performance.

Pati Pati

The evening began with a short piece called Pati Pati - excerpts from the company's previously performed repertoire.  The first section began with the dancers seated on the floor.  The piece immediately drew me in with its rocking motions, sighs, and slaps, based on children's hand games and gestures from personal stories of child abuse.

The piece progressed and expanded as a trio of dancers were featured and then later, the entire group moved in unison in what I would call a "bowling-pin-formation."  Sometimes sharp and percussive, sometimes rounded and smooth, the choreography was quick and athletic, all the while driven by the music.  The dancers were bathed in a pale orange glow, and with the quick level changes—from a seated floor position, to the knees, to the feet, jumps, and then back to the floor again—at times it looked like the dancing flames from a crackling bonfire.

"I'm exhausted just watching them," said my spouse after the first piece ended. 

In a discussion after the show, Ieremia mentioned that he chose the simple costumes for this piece— ("Naked without being naked," he said) —because he wanted to showcase the dance and its traditions without the hindrance of flashy costumes. 

Amata Act 3 - (a new beginning)

The second piece, Amata Act 3, was part of longer work exploring the theme of change.  The costumes for this piece were red, symbolizing blood and forgiveness.  Ierenia mentioned that in the Pacific and Samoan cultures it's typical to give a ceremonial gift of a mat called 'ie tōga for not only weddings and funerals, but also to ask for forgiveness.  If someone wrongs another person, the family of the offender gives a mat to the other person's family to ask for forgiveness for the wrong inflicted.

What was interesting to me was that the program stated that the movements were inspired by the woven patterns in the mats as well as phrases from letters, conversations, arguments and apologies.  It reminded me of the African mudcloth patterns used as inspiration for tiles.  (See Visual Poetry - Hand-Painted Tiles by Lea-Way Designs.)

This piece emphasized lines of dancers crossing through each other, first leaning in—off balance, suspended on one leg—and then falling into pleasantly unorthodox drop rolls.  The movements alternated between sharp and smooth.  At times the dancers opened their arms and performed a series of jumps which made them look like they were soaring.  There was also some partnering as pairs of dancers performed sequences of running, turning, falling and pushing each other. One of my favorite repeating themes had clapping, and movements with the hand coming toward the ear.

photo courtesy from the Ordway

Vaka - (canoe)

The last piece, Vaka, was an hour-long piece with many parts.  Based on the concept of each person's journey, it was about what we carry as our beliefs, experiences and memories - both good and bad.

I noticed with this piece there seemed to be a lot more interaction among the dancers.  The first part began with a duet - two dancers interacting in silence and then slowly they were accompanied by sweet harp music.  A group would travel in a cluster using box-step-like patterns, and then the energy of the dance escalated with lifts - one person lifting another or several lifting one.  The lifts were non-linear as bodies were propelled into complete inversion, suspended at the highest point overhead and then placed back on their feet again.  Several times a dancer would lie on her back, heels parallel to the ceiling and another dancer was lifted by others to stand on the first dancer's feet. Something I had never seen before.

In one portion of this piece the stage was black and hazy shafts of light filtered down through the darkness.  Dancers moved in and out of the light as they leaped across the stage or dropped to the floor.  With the unique lighting and ambient soundtrack of water and birds, it established a rainforest or jungle-like atmosphere.

A special feature of the final piece was the large winding white sheet held up by several dancers that zig-zagged across the stage.  The two featured dancers would fall into the fabric and also allow themselves to be wrapped in it by the others.  Initially the colors on the sheet were in a blue and brown pattern.  Later, the fabric was stretched out into a long triangle, the narrow corner at stage left, expanding to the wide corner at stage right.  One of the dancers curled up in a state of rest at the narrow corner and images were projected onto the cloth - ocean waves, a dessert, mountains, a lake - so that she appeared to be part of the landscape - lying on a rock, undulated by ocean waves, or sleeping among the sands.  The end of that section gave me chills as the fabric was pulled slowly offstage and the dancer was pulled with it, still resting on the narrow edge.

In one of the last sections the dancers appeared in street clothes, reminiscent of West Side Story.  Males huddled in gang-like circles; themes of hierarchy and competition ensued.  Their movements manifested into manipulations of each others body parts, as though adjusting the limbs of an action figure.  Later, the women entered in with their own theme and then joined the jumping theme of the guys.  The group moved as a cluster in unison, then morphed into dancers advancing and receding, pushing to get to the front. Conflict arose where they'd scatter, and one-by-one they'd be eliminated as they pushed against each other, and a dancer would fall, as though rejected, and slowly roll offstage.   
Vaka ended with one of the repeating themes that portrayed the dancers walking slowly within a thin line of light - some just walking, some being carried like human backpacks. It reminded me of the story The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, begging the question - when you're in a survival situation, what are the important things you take with you?  Lyrics came from The Raft - Fat Freddy's Drop:

The industry - they'll never find me, here among the trees
My footsteps will be, will be all that I leave
Oh, lonely island, so rich, so fair, we leave your shores for reasons unclear
Looking for a better life, and you are all that I need (hey)
All that I need.

After the Show

I enjoyed talking with some of the dancers after the show.  Brydie was trained in classical ballet and Jullie has a background in cultural dances.  They mentioned several places they had performed on their current tour including Vancouver, Georgetown, and Portland, criss-crossing all over North America. They had 5 weeks of practice for this show - from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, 6-7 days a week.  Five weeks - to learn all that material?  Yes, they said, it was a grueling schedule, but they really loved it; this was what they had worked for; this was what they had dreamed about.

For me, Black Grace was amazing, but so much more.  It explored many universal themes, faith, and other forms of art, but most importantly, it took me on a journey to a place where I had never been before.

If you'd like to see any of the other World Music and Dance Performances check out www.ordway.org or call 651-224-4222. 

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