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Manly men: Black Grace.

Working Their Muscles
By Mae G. Banner

Black Grace

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 28

Ted Shawn would have loved Black Grace. The New Zealand-based company of seven muscular male dancers were a 21st-century reiteration of Shawn and his Men Dancers, whose rugged choreography drew the first audiences to Jacob’s Pillow in 1933.

Shawn recruited physical-education students from Springfield College to form his new company. Determined to prove that dance was a manly art, he choreographed works on themes of labor, sports and indigenous heroes. Costumes were often minimal to show off the men’s fine physiques.

Like Shawn’s troupe, the men of Black Grace are strong, unaffected, comfortable in their bodies, and not afraid to touch. At the Pillow last Sunday—their second run here after their triumphant U.S. debut last summer—they danced a swift-moving program of plain, highly rhythmic works that built steadily in complexity from a simple hand-slapping game to a fly-around-the-stage work to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto.

It was like watching a soccer team warm up in preparation for a big tournament game.

All the choreography is by Neil Ieremia, a Samoan-born New Zealander, who founded the troupe 10 years ago. The multi-racial group reflects the variety of New Zealand people: Samoans, Maoris, Pacific Islanders and Brits. The term “black” does not refer to skin color, but is slang for “most daring; most brave.” “Grace” comes naturally from the men’s unabashed joy in their physicality.

The program, a retrospective of the troupe’s works from 1995-2005, included three U.S. premieres, beginning with Traditional Challenge/Hand Game, an excerpt from a longer work that celebrates Ieremia’s Samoan heritage. Quick, intricate, and clever, the dance was a symphony of hand-slaps, finger-snaps, foot-stamps and claps, accompanied by the men’s sweet, harmonic singing. Sharp exhalations added still another beat to the syncopated game.

Two similar dances, Fa’a Ulutao (meaning the Spearhead, a traditional name for a section of a Samoan man’s tattoo), and Minoi, set to a Samoan lullaby, displayed the men’s focus and fleetness. Ieremia’s choreography was tight and basic, relying on jumps, runs, falls and rolls. Always, muscles mattered.

Deep Far (1998) began with the sound of a howling wind. Four men, wearing only briefs, began walking, each on his own path, but never far from center stage. A whirling reel by Afro Celt Sound System seemed to propel each man to travel further afield. As the dance built, two men advanced on two, passing lyrically, yet boldly, to a moderate beat. The dancers seemed to enter a trance, until they all leapt, not together, but in a wave of muscles, like one great animal. Their arms shot up as if in prayer. Then, the two pairs grasped each other and sank into low horizontal hulks. Deep Far was a beautiful, erotic study in masculinity.

For most of its life, Black Grace has remained all male, but, at the Pillow, Ieremia added three women as guest artists. In Open Letter (2005), a U.S. premiere, Abby Crowther and Desiree Westerlund out-toughed the toughest men. The women, joined by ballet-trained Deidre Taueki, reappeared in the humorous Human Language (2002), in which they fascinated the men and joined them in a reggae-inflected swing dance that zinged with rough-and-ready joy more than sexuality. Moving to a drum-heavy score by Chico Hamilton, the women in full-skirted dresses of red, orange and lemon chiffon, sashayed, one by one, before a line of men who blew up colorful balloons in response to the women’s curvy moves. As each woman left the stage, the balloons deflated loudly, causing toddlers in the audience to giggle with delight.

Ieremia is unpretentious: The U.S. premiere to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, he called Fast Bach. I loved this dance, maybe because it spoke readily to my Western eyes. Four men in black sleeveless T-shirts and jeans swirled athletically to the baroque music, their moves clarifying its structure. They carried steps from the previous dances into modern-design-esque traveling shapes, letting their swinging arms whip their bodies into risky jumps and rolls. The runs, jumps, catches and even the passage when a man walked upon the bodies of a row of his fellows reminded me of Paul Taylor’s choreography to Bach or Handel. I “got” this and found it wonderful.

The final dance, Method (2000), to Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, pushed the manly beauty even further. Each dancer got a brief solo that showed off his particular strength. Some had wonderful curved lines; some ran and leapt, flying, into their brothers’ arms; one was tall and arrowy; one was dark and compact. Through it all, the full-length painting of Ted Shawn in loin-cloth and a bustle of eagle feathers, looked on with glowing eyes.

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