men: Black Grace.
Mae G. Banner
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.
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
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
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.