Dance Review: Black Grace at the Byham Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

With all the American contemporary dance happening in Pittsburgh lately, New Zealand company, Black Grace, came as a welcome surprise Saturday night.

Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was born and raised in New Zealand, but attributes his signature style to his Samoan heritage. Growing up, singing and dancing were part of his traditional culture.

The company was formed in 1995, and for years was comprised of all men. When the original dancers’ careers came to a close, Ieremia found it difficult to find many new male dancers. He joked that in New Zealand, men are usually “growing beards and playing rugby.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen a rugby match since college, but the athletic style of Black Grace seemed equally, if not more, physically taxing than the extremely vigorous sport.

Ieremia asserts that the women he added to the company bring elegant lines to the choreography. But the men were equally impressive in that area. The entire company had an incredible athleticism that barely slowed during the two hour show. To develop the speed and stamina necessary to perform the work, the dancers cross-train, running hills and even wrestling to stay in shape.

The first half, called “Pati Pati,” was influenced by traditional Samoan dances that use body slapping and seated motifs. To the beat of a drum, the dancers pounded the floor, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet in complicated rhythms.

A particularly intricate section that used snapping and chanting came from an old piece about children’s hand games. The dancers had precision and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In repetitive jumps and falls to the floor, the energy didn’t waiver even once.

The second half began in silence, with a slower rhythm and partnering sequences using smaller groups of dancers. One visually beautiful section used a large light blue cloth. The dancers weaved in and around it, wrapped themselves inside of it, and lifted one another over top of it. Eventually, they held the cloth still, while images of varying landscapes were projected onto it. To the sounds of nature, scenes of mountains, oceans and seasons changing gave a break from the more vigorous movement.

Act 2 included more contemporary material, proving Ieremia’s talent in multiple genres. The tempo varied, and his use of space expanded from large group unison to interesting duets and trios. Although the program was a touch too long, the audience rose to their feet at the end, in awe of the uniqueness and dynamism that is distinctly Black Grace.

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