All the world loves a hunk. And it helps when hunks have passion, commitment, and wit as strong as their abs. The audience in Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theatre is instantly thrilled by the six men of Neil Ieremia’s New Zealand–based ensemble, Black Grace.
Ieremia, born in New Zealand of Samoan parents, strives admirably to combine his heritage with his background in contemporary dance. In Fa’a Ulutao, Va’a (excerpts from his 2003 Surface), and Minoi, the dancers most often form a tight, explosive phalanx. Their stance is wide, their knees bent. Their energy, goaded by percussive rhythms, is ferocious, and so is their gaze. They lance into the air; fall, roll, crawl; hop from foot to foot, bent arms wigwagging. Their curving gestures cuff the space. Minoi refers to the Samoan slap dance while extending its dynamic range; the men vocalize as they slowly work up to whacking themselves in rhythmic patterns.
The choreographic palette is restricted, but Ieremia tints the steps and varies the patterns skillfully. And as the program unfolds, he ventures further from tradition. In Deep Far, Tai Royal, Sam Fuataga, Sean MacDonald, and Daniel Cooper not only walk warily, their gestures slightly softer and more open, but they lift one another. Human Language introduces three women (Abby Crowther, Dolina Wehipeihana, and Desiree Westerlund) as guest artists. These invaders are greeted with a sexual aside. As they flounce past, one by one, in butterfly-bright dresses, the watching men inflate balloons; as each visitor starts to leave, the balloons go limp. But these strong-dancing women can balance a long time when set down on one leg, and even kick a guy in the stomach. The piece is a bit untidy, yet full of lively interactions.
Ieremia commits himself to a more political stance in Objects (a work in progress). Its subject, not surprisingly, is “difference.” The choreography riffs off poems (spoken on tape) that present a horrific past event—Samoans placed on exhibit in a Berlin zoo—and its contemporary resonance. Nothing in the powerful work is literal, but in the men’s marching, the steps that fall backward, the winging arms, the desperate dancing, we feel the pain of displacement and violation.
The choreographer’s vocabulary also lends itself to exaltation. As the first movement of Bach’s third Brandenburg bursts out at top volume for Method, the men launch themselves at the space and each other. Now they watch Tamihana Paurini show off; now Fuataga takes a turn. They toss MacDonald into the air; then Jeremy Poi launches himself into their arms. If one guy grabs a colleague’s head and bends it back, the latter obliges with a back somersault. The pace, high-sweat energy, and contagious joy bring the spectators to their feet, roaring.