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Review: Black Grace offers bold view of Polynesian culture at the Byham

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 9:17 a.m.

Bold invention no less than high energy made the Pittsburgh debut of the New Zealand dance group Black Grace a compelling experience Saturday night at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

The group was formed in 1995 by dancer and choreographer Neil Ieremia, who draws upon traditional Polynesian culture in a modern dance context. His ensemble is obviously very well rehearsed because it performed with unfailing discipline all night.

The program began with "Pati Pati," a perfect introduction to Iereuma's style, in part because it is irresistible. It begins with all the dancers sitting on the stage floor, which they slap rhythmically. The piece is performed to compelling percussion music written by Ieremia and Juse, which has polyrhythmic layers with strong main beats.

When the dancers rise to their feet they continue to be part of the sound of the music through a variety of body percussion techniques. Iereuma's choreography is extremely vigorous and fast, full of pride and group assertion. And while the energy is staggering, the creativity of movements, their natural flow from one to another, and Ieremia's sense of form is no less arresting.

"Amata," Act III, was also fully convincing, with a larger proportion of modern dance elements and less body percussion and other Polynesian dance vocabulary - but performed with traditional folk music.

An excerpt from a longer work, this ballet about change took deep inspiration from the weaving patterns of Samoan fine mats, which are used for ceremonial and other important occasions. This could been seen in several of the many inventive patterns that exemplify Ieremia's gift for group movement. At one point when three lines of dancers run diagonally across the stage their straight lines are interrupted for a very quick turn, akin to knitting. At another point three shorter lines of dancers, 3 in front and back with two in the middle, rise and descend like colors coming out to catch our eyes.

"Vaka," which means canoe or raft, came after intermission and lasted an hour. It is an ambitious piece, a statement piece. Although water will play a role in its unfolding, the canoe is more importantly a metaphor for what we carry with us - what is precious to us and necessary to survive. The piece also asks what we will do to save what is precious to us, what we want to pass on and are willing to share, and why it takes a catastrophe for us to really help one another.

"Vaka" is filled with appealing elements, including a lyrical sensibility largely absent from the first half of the program. The music is also far more varied, opening with a lovely extended harp solo called "The Nature of Things" by Natalia Mann.

The only prop is a large sheet, which the dancers use to divide themselves. But the sheet's best use is in the evening's least kinetic moment, when a single female dancer lays down on one end of the sheet. As she sleeps, the remainder of the sheet is drawn up by other dancers to serve as a screen on which beautiful coastal scenes are projected to the sounds of lapping waves and the calls of sea gulls.

However, "Vaka" does feel too long. The thematic flow would be improved by trimming some of the sections between the opening scene and the one by the shore.

The final section begins with a soundtrack of news announcements about catastrophes, both natural, such as a tsunami, and man-made, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When the catastrophe is past, how much do we return to our normal way of living? How much do we change?

While the stylized fighting between dancers is banished in the final section, Ieremia retains his questioning perspective to the end. Ieremia had shown on the first half of the program that he knows the value of a decisive conclusion and how to provide it. The conclusion of "Vaka" is a bold choice theatrically, which forces viewers to leave with questions in their minds.

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