by Heather Desaulniers
March 6, 2010 -- George Mason University, Center for the Arts-Fairfax, Virginia
This weekend, George Mason University's Center for the Arts presented Black Grace, a New Zealand dance company that seeks to blend the contemporary and the cultural. Samoan and Pacific Island ethnic dance permeated the program, though the message I saw in Black Grace's presentation was one of common ground. Their movement, though distinctive, demonstrated that dance is a shared understanding; culturally and stylistically.
The use of body and foot percussion was a theme that ran through many of the pieces with all sorts of snapping, beating and clapping sequences. Physical percussion is unique because it is both dance and music at the same time. Of course, the choreography of Black Grace revealed the importance of body percussion in Pacific Island culture, yet it was also reminiscent of tap, Kathak, Irish step-dancing, Appalachian clogging, and Croatian folk-dance. What emerged from the stage was a rich cultural mosaic with an incredible dualism: the importance of diversity combined with a sense of unity. Dance that is linked to a specific cultural or geographic area still shares movement vocabulary with other dance forms, transcending boundaries.
The body percussion sections that were performed a cappella (Minoi and Pati Pati) were the highlights of the show. It is unbelievably difficult, even for a professional troupe, to maintain consistency and unison without accompaniment. All it takes is one dancer accelerating slightly more than the others, and before you know it, the speed of the whole section is akin to a skier racing down an icy hill. Black Grace kept their unaccompanied body percussion incredibly accurate.
After intermission, the company danced two excerpts from a larger work, Gathering Clouds. The second, Keep Honour Bright, retained many of the cultural elements introduced in the first half of the program, but this time more heavily weighted in a modern dance framework. Set to Bach's Goldberg Variations, the subject and countersubject in his composition were equally present in the dancers' steps. Neil Ieremia, Black Grace's Artistic Director, has the necessary choreographic skill to shape movement that can reflect the complexity of Bach's polyphony. Mark Morris possesses a similar finesse with music and dance, though Ieremia was not afraid to add concept and imagery to his exploration of the score. The movement and the music were compelling in their own right, yet Ieremia surpassed his peers by adding a narrative dimension.
Between most of the pieces, Ieremia came out to speak to the audience. Usually I can do without this kind of interaction. Choreographers tend to introduce their work in too much detail and as a result, I find that my interpretation becomes clouded. I end up seeing what they tell me I should see rather than what emerges from an unfettered viewing. However, this time it didn't bother me because Ieremia was absolutely delightful. He spoke so easily and humorously to the group, it was as if he was having a one-on-one conversation with every individual there. There were no barriers, he was just talking - about his family, his heritage, his culture and his choreography, without affectation or pretentiousness. He did give a little more description of the dances than I would have liked, but his demeanor was so genuine that I didn't care. And, with his small company (most of them performed in every piece), these interludes were necessary so that the dancers could change costumes.
As I see dance from different parts of the world, I become more and more convinced that the performing arts can teach in a way that other mediums cannot. The body, moving in space, is something true across many cultures. Companies like Black Grace communicate that our similarities run deeper than our differences.