Black Grace boasts striking athleticism, artistic finesse

Last Wednesday, the New Zealand-based modern dance company Black Grace took over the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance MainStage. Black Grace, a leading contemporary dance company, delivered a dynamic performance.

The first piece, titled “Pati Pati,” primed the audience for the rest of the show: strong, precise lines with a minimalist set and lighting design. What, in particular, was the most intriguing about this piece was the manipulation of sound. Dance is often considered to merely be a relationship between movement and music, but Black Grace added yet another dimension to the mix. Body percussion – clapping, slapping and tapping – assisted the music and greatly increased the piece’s dynamism. The dancers hooted and screamed.

Past these more obvious auditory inputs, however, it seemed as if even the weight of the dancers’ footfalls and the pace, tone and volume of their breathing was as choreographed as their movements. Inhales and exhales were exaggerated and drawn out: The audience breathed with them.

The second piece, titled “Amata,” was an excerpt from a full-length work of the same title. It was in this piece that the lighting crew used every trick to impress; the intricate patterns that lit the stage floor were based on Samoan woven mats. The manipulation of patterns, of course, did not stop there. Choreographer Neil Leremia seemed to be constantly experimenting with intricate stage formations and with the different quality of lines.

The third and final piece, titled “Vaka,” was by far the most intriguing piece of the show. It was inspired by artist Bill Viola’s installation The Raft and the portrayal of Maori explorers in Louis J. Steele and Charles F. Goldie’s The Arrival of the Maoris. Both of these pieces were controversial in their artistic dialogue on race and explored the raft as a vessel for much more than just transportation from one physical place to another.  “The question I was struck with when I considered The Raft was ‘why does it often take a disaster or life threatening events for humans to demonstrate humanity?’” Leremia said of his inspiration. In order to answer this question, he bombarded the audience’s senses with both dynamic and energetic choreography and with multimedia installations. One of the strongest moments in the show was one wherein a dancer laid on a strip of cloth that was stretched across the stage. Crashing waves were projected onto the cloth strip, and after a couple of seconds, the cloth was pulled off stage with the dancer and the chaotic imagery being dragged off with it. Simple yet powerful. That, it seems, is what Black Grace was all about.

Despite the beauty of the show, there was a disparity between the lengths of Act I and Act II. Act I, which consisted of the first two pieces, was not only much shorter but was cut in the middle by a short intermission. The length of the second act made the dramatic and heavy themes of “Vaka” more tiring to watch and in that, harder to process.

The sheer athleticism of these dancers and their incredible fitness cannot be overlooked in contributing to the piece. Despite having to dance – and in that, to leap, run, lift and do many challenging moves – for two hours in total, the dancers performed each move with as much precision and energy as if it had been their first move of the show.  And of course, they made everything look effortless; even as dancers were flung halfway across the stage and landing completely silently while others would go from lying down to jumping two feet in the air without skipping a beat. It was awe-inspiring to say the least.

It made perfect sense after seeing their performance why Black Grace was chosen to perform at the opening ceremony for the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad; these are the Olympians of the dance world.

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