Contemporary dance troupe lights up Bovard Auditorium

Black Grace contemporary dance troupe infuses its performances with modern and classic forms of dance and music. (Photo courtesy of Eva NaRanong | Visions and Voices)

Internationally recognized New Zealand choreographer Neil Ieremia brought his contemporary dance company Black Grace to Bovard Auditorium to showcase a collection of pieces celebrating his company’s repertoire Monday evening. The New Zealand-based dance group, founded in 1995, mixes contemporary movement with Ieremia’s Samoan and New Zealand heritage.

As the audience sat in total darkness, barely able to make out the line of dancers rushing on stage holding hands, a single hum hung in the air. It came from one dancer, then another and then another until the group of six hummed in harmony. No one had moved since the first hum, which isn’t a typical sight in a dance work. 

The lights rose, revealing two drummers behind the dancers who are providing a now-discernible rhythm with beautiful syncopation. The rest of the piece flies by with a flurry of contemporary and South Pacific choreography driven by the speeding drummers.

Ieremia’s choreography incorporates frequent body percussion inspired by Samoan Sasa and Fa’ataupati, a traditional slap dance that aligns with the intricate drum rhythm, adding another level of physical and musical complexity. In a Q&A with Kaufman School of Dance Vice Dean and director Jodie Gates, Ieremia discussed the significance of this first piece, “Kiona and the Little Bird Suite.”

“The piece is a collection of all the movement, movement phrases, motifs and all sorts of things from the last 25 years of Black Grace,” Ieremia said.

According to the event’s program, the disparity between historical and modern modes of artistic expression in the work — especially relating to the music — is an intentional decision that provides a space for these modes to interact.

“The mixture of live and recorded sound is an acknowledgement of the meeting place of the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary,” the program read.

Ieremia draws from some of his most celebrated repertoire, which confront an array of topics from child abuse to peace. The event also exposed the audience to themes of toxic masculinity, freedom and  matriarchys in New Zealand culture.

One notable thing about Black Grace is its uncompromising drive to blur the lines between celebrating tradition and welcoming modern forms of expression. Ieremia is also no stranger to utilizing art that originates outside of the South Pacific by setting some of his work to classical European composers like Antonio Vivaldi. 

Ieremia admitted he has received wide-eyed stares and many questions in response to his choices that overtly deviate from the cultures he set out to celebrate. However, Iremia said mixing art from different cultures creates something new and original.

“We’re all the same people, aren’t we?” Ieremia said. “We’re all just doing the same thing. We breathe the same air. They expected me to continue to use wooden drums and nets and grass skirts because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But I just thought that was ridiculous.”

The choreographer tackled the difficult conversation surrounding cultural appropriation in art by suggesting that humanity is our most basic connection. Looking beyond the veils of guarded traditions and cultural norms, we can try to release the tendency to preserve our culture when we reject intermixing between cultures.

Black Grace’s explosive movements also intertwine beautifully to slower, classical music from baroque musical composers Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. Ieremia seems to be a master at fusing the conventional with the unusual through choreography, theme and music. 

Black Grace previously performed at Bovard Auditorium in 2015. Visions and Voices Executive Director Daria Yudacufski said the company did not travel to the U.S. often, so when she heard they were touring, she took the chance and secured the group’s appearance.

“They really are just this wonderful company,” Yudacufski said. “It’s really wonderful to be able to bring in international artists through Visions and Voices.”

Black Grace moves with a raw power and intense physicality that makes every performance an exhilarating ride. The effective use of counterpoint and canon techniques creates some of the most incredible visuals seen on stage. Ieremia showed he could handle his dancers while also letting each dancer embody their work in a unique way. 

The final presentation is surely a sight to behold, one that demands as much attention from the audience as it demands of its dancers. Through all of Black Grace’s immense energy and creative use of different artistic media, Ieremia establishes the company as one that is willing to take risks. 

In asking questions about the role of toxic masculinity and freedom, Ieremia’s message seems to align with the goals of the Visions and Voices initiative. According to Yudacufski, the program aims to use the arts to inspire students to think about larger social problems and ideas. 

“I want to begin a conversation along the lines of [looking] at the way we treat our fathers,” Ieremia said. “I want us to look at the way we treat our women, and I want us to look more deeply in things that ask some difficult questions.” 

By incorporating international artist events, the initiative engages students on a deep multicultural level that allows the community to explore how people are connected through modern social issues. 

Brianna Pember, a freshman majoring in musical theatre, spoke highly of the performance and held the company’s technical aspects with high regard.

“I love the minimalistic [sic] aspects of it, how there was no set and the costumes were really simple. It was really heavy storytelling, and I feel like I could see everything that they were trying to tell and it was really beautiful.”