Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

The Man Show


Black Grace showcased in PBS dance documentary

New Zealand's all-male Pacific Islander and Maori dance company Black Grace.
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If you turned a rugby team into a ballet company, the result might become Black Grace. That's a comparison made by Artistic Director Neil Ieremia, whose work is showcased in Black Grace: From Cannon's Creek to Jacob's Pillow, a beautifully shot one-hour documentary about New Zealand's all-male Pacific Islander and Maori dance company.

Producer and director Aileen O'Sullivan captures a brief history of the company, Ieremia's early dance days, and rehearsal and performance footage of their triumphant yet too-brief season abroad in the United States.

Footage includes rehearsals for recent dances, as well as an unusual performance in Sydney as the company is sponsored by a major corporation. The stage, filled with an iridescent pool of water, is only one deterrent to their performance. Director Ieremia is shown castigating the ensemble for their lackluster performance.

But while some scenes show the hardship, discipline and egos that kept Black Grace going, for the most part, in-between brief interviews with company members and staff, the dances are shot with care and a full scope.

Among them are works which incorporate traditional Maori haka dances made popular by Australian and New Zealand rugby teams. The squatting macho shouts are only one source of inspiration for the effusive Ieremia. While he too often defends the "masculinity" of his ensemble, his work does live up to the hype. Also, it doesn't take extra-sensory gaydar to figure out that a few company members may be gay.

The intricacy and muscularity of Ieremia's work merit the exuberant praise he received when the company grew from a small-town clan of former jocks into guest artists at the renowned Massachusetts dance colony co-founded by early modern dance choreographer Ted Shawn. Shawn, whose now-antiquated works also included all-male dances, would probably by bowled over by the comparatively diverse ways Ieremia blends the macho with the delicate.

While a few dances that include three women guest artists explore straight romance and sexuality in mirthful and comic ways, the all-male works are what gained Black Grace's reputation as a strong force girded in both ballet discipline and solid Samoan and Maori influence.

Some themes include parental abuse, violence, and the history of slavery in the Pacific Islands. The company's trademark dance, "Minoi" is a more pure modern update of percussive haka dance forms.

The program culminates in an excellent four-camera edit of Ieremia's "Method," a free-flowing circular frolic set to music by Bach, and reminiscent of lighter Paul Taylor works.

What makes the documentary all the more precious is the sad fact that after years of growth, Ieremia's company broke up shortly after their Jacob's Pillow visit and the film's completion. His in-progress new company is comprised mostly of women dancers. While it may have a bold new vision, it certainly won't be the blend of sensuous and masculine dances of his earlier work that won him so much acclaim.

Black Grace: From Cannon's Creek to Jacob's Pillow airs June 21 at 10 p.m. on PBS/ KQED, Channel 9.

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