Nearly 25 years ago, Neil Ieremia set out to create a contemporary dance troupe that could draw from his Samoan and New Zealand roots, mining traditions of vivid storytelling and movement of dynamic physicality and raw power. Along the way, he has developed a body of work for his company Black Grace that crosses geographical and social boundaries, often with innovative flair and theatricality. He also has gathered together a troupe of dancers possessing extraordinary physical skill, expressive eloquence, and a sense of galvanized commitment.
Black Grace’s third Celebrity Series engagement over the weekend (the last was in 2010) featured four works by Ieremia that span the company’s history. Surprisingly, the most coherent work actually draws from six different works created between 1996 and 2018. But together, they infuse the new “Kiona and the Little Bird Suite” with the kind of choreography the company does best — vigorous, muscular, weighted movement to music with engaging rhythmic integrity (written by Opetaia Foa’i) that includes live drumming by Isitolo Alesana, chanting, singing, and body percussion.
The suite opens with the dancers in a circle, bathed in red light, and slowly unfolds with unison steps and angular gestures, as if some mysterious ritual. As the ensemble expands across the floor into tight, multi-layered floor patterns, dancers explode into propulsive skips, stomps, kicks, squats, lunges. Sharp, jagged articulations of the limbs stop and start with impeccable focus and precision, creating motivic imitation and cross-rhythms. It packs the raw visceral power of a primal communal rite into a carefully constructed form of rigor and sophistication.
Though the movement aesthetic feels similar in “As Night Falls,” presented in an abridged version, the music of Vivaldi sets a very different tone and context. Here the movement is looser, more thrown. Movement goes airborne as dancers are upended over shoulders, rolling to the floor only to bound up with springy energy. Dynamics and directions shift quickly, and quirky isolations spool into flowing undulations. At one point, a prone dancer is grabbed by his feet and sent into a full body ripple, like a sheet being unfurled. Swinging triplets and leap turns are almost playful. It’s a very busy work that doesn’t fully come together. According to Ieremia’s program notes, the work is seeded with the emotional angst of today’s world, but the only time that really hits home is a striking moment near the end when a group of dancers, pinned by the light of a stark spotlight, raise their hands slowly in surrender.
Excerpts from “Crying Men” suffer from a similar lack of cohesion. An ambitiously theatrical work created with playwright Victor Rodger and set mostly to diffuse electronic music, it explores ingrained patterns of masculinity in Pacific island men. Three ceremonial figures in wigged headdresses preside downstage as a voiceover intones, “This is the end . . . my life stretches behind me . . . broken . . . breaking.” A portrait of despair slowly emerges as bodies are carried, pushed, poked, dragged. One fascinating confrontation between a man and woman takes place at warp speed, as if quivering isolations are charged by an electric current. But the most memorable sequence is a stand-alone gem — a rhythmic line dance by five dancers, hands joined, unleashing furious moves to an unrelenting beat, breaking apart only to grab empty air.
Ieremia calls “Method,” an evocation of “boyhood memories of backyard rugby games, bull rush, and wrestling . . .” But this upbeat finale, strikingly redolent of Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade,” is a jubilant romp fueled by the music of Bach, complete with a flurry of entrances and exits, and exuberant dives into outstretched arms.
A Celebrity Series presentation at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Saturday nightKaren Campbell can be reached at [email protected].