On line to get into the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow, the woman studied her ticket. “I hope,” she told her family, “that we’re close enough to see the sweat but not close enough to get sprayed.” Last summer, New Zealand’s Black Grace performed in the Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theatre, generating enough heat and flying sweat to make spectators feel part of a potent ritual. But even in a proscenium house like the Shawn—or Manhattan’s New Victory, where this seven-man company (plus three female “guest artists”) performs starting next week—Black Grace rouses the blood.
The group’s director-choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was raised in New Zealand by Samoan parents, and his dances combine elements of the two cultures developed into a language that can seem both ancient and contemporary. The black in Black Grace means “the bravest, the most daring.” In Traditional Challenge/Hand Game, Fa’a Ulutao, and Minoi, the marvelous men dance like warriors—legs braced wide apart, feet smacking the ground, arms slicing and whacking the air. They cluster together, eye us warily, and keep their rhythms taut.
Ieremia structures these works savvily. In Minoi, variations on a traditional Samoan slap dance, Sam Fuataga, Sean MacDonald, Tamihana Paurini, Daniel Cooper, Jeremy Poi, and Ueta Siteine break into counterpoint, three singing and gesturing sweet and slow, three counting like Sesame Street kids. Rolling, jumping, lunging, the four men of Deep Far (Fuataga, MacDonald, Cooper, and Paurini) spread out and regroup like the weather cycles that inspired the piece.
The choreographer’s take on his women is enigmatic. We musn’t forget they’re just guests, although a 2005 duet brings Abby Crowther and Desiree Westerlund together on a bench and, to Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam, explores issues of intimacy and distance in robust moves. In Human Language, which is set to Chico Hamilton’s drumming and contains some of Ieremia’s liveliest, wittiest, and most complex come-and-go encounters, the women (including Deirdre Taueki) are as strong and athletic as the men, yet they wear 1950s-style party frocks. They lift more than their own weight but get lugged over the guys’ shoulders like the Sabine women.
In setting two all-male pieces, Fast Bach and Method, to sections of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Ieremia uses a looser, more cursive style, with lifts, rebounds, and parries. The movements and devices in Method evoke Paul Taylor’s Esplanade a little too strongly for comfort, but as the men race and hurtle through a variety of pastimes, Ieremia occasionally really rides the wave of the music. MacDonald runs and the pack catches him backward and lifts him high, along with our hearts.
Fukurow Ishikawa majored in electrical engineering before becoming what he terms a “kinetic artist.” He knows how thrilling technology can be, and how scary. Ozma, performed by his Tokyo-based Project Fukurow, articulates this dichotomy and what he describes in a program note as feeling “like a rag doll handled by something huge.” In the creepy opening, a rough, rusty structure covered with iron filings revolves; it’s a chair, and bound to it by plastic tapes—silenced, blinded—is a human being. To the murmurous, often clamorous sounds produced by Christophe Charles, the chair glides offstage.
We’ve entered a surreal, remote-control nightmare. A table slides on and comes to rest before Tetsuo Sanari. He opens a book that casts a bluish light on his face, and a ragged-bodied doll lying supine on the table begins a feeble march in time to the music. Somewhat later, a smaller version of the doll walks under the table as it crosses the stage. The protagonist survives an encounter with three foot-long robots, each part-centipede, part–scythed chariot. They stop just short of his recumbent form and toddle off.
As Suzanne Carbonneau points out in a superb program essay, the Japanese fascination with robots has roots in ancient traditions—both religious and theatrical—involving puppets and automata. The connections between doll and handler, robot and controller run very deep. Ishikawa deals with this in ways both emphatic and subtle. Sanari struggles to master a handheld, three-bladed fan running amok. Set down, it restarts itself and tosses him in a spectacular gale. The passages of acrobatic dancing for Sanari or four women suggest a battle between control and lack of it. The rolls and tumbles, martial arts lunges and backflips, and breakdance plunges look storm tossed. Several times the women, usually in twos (Keiko Hirata and Naoko Ishikawa, Kirie Ichikawa and Yu Shizawa), walk as if being pressed backward. A hand often gets the shakes and has to be grasped. A hand tries to choke its owner.
The same dance passages recur again and again, heightening the image of mechanical life. Perhaps the creator of the hour-long piece wants us to fear it will never end. The lights (by Nami Nakayama) that lay windows on the floor and then erase them, the sounds that stop as if turned off, seem part of a reasoned, unreasonable process. Finally Sanari, seated in the ambulatory chair, slowly embraces the larger doll, but as the chair revolves, the doll disappears—his other self absorbed—and he reappears holding the open book. He closes it: the end?