Reviewed by Malcolm Calder
The Art of Black Grace 1/5
A Black Grace dance installation
Multiple daily performances
Until 10 December 2022
The Art of Black Grace 1/5
Director and Executive Producer Neil Ieremia
Executive Producer Abby Ieremia
Lead Producer James Wasmer
Post Production Delainy Kennedy
Director of Photography Duncan Cole
Reviewed by Malcolm Calder
It was wet and rainy Sunday afternoon on the Auckland waterfront. On one of the open spaces at Wynard Quater a cylindrical tube about 6m long is standing on end, surrounded by lights and carefully fenced off with railings.
Clutching umbrellas, some casual passers-by stop. Seeing only a kind of round wall with lots of wires and plugs, they become intrigued. ‘What is it?’ they ask. “Could be a rocket ship” he says laughing. “Yeah, maybe be a Spacelab thing …” she replied. Upon learning it is a new Black Grace project they become even more intrigued. “Yeah, I’ve heard of Black Grace”, he said, “but modern dance just isn’t my thing”. “Why don’t we check it out?” she responded.
So they did.
Inside they found the cylinder is about 15m in diameter and comfortably holds about 100 people. Standing. The inside walls are completely clad in a myriad of LED screens. They are dark. Black. Overhead, and also black, a sound and lighting system lurks on a gantry. Above the gantry they can see only the sky and scudding storm clouds. But mercifully the rain holds off and their umbrellas remain furled.
On looking around they soon realise they are encircled by dimly lit … darkness. No, wait. They are no longer standing on Wynard Quarter concrete. Underfoot has become a stage floor, edges barely lit, yet revealing traces of people. Sitting. And moving. Then standing. Are they naked? No, they’re in black leotards. Phew … they’re dancers. Slowly, discreetly, the dancers move closer and encircle this large group of people who have never met and do not know each other, but who are about to become a single entity as they share and experience something unique. They do so with 360-degree vision around the wall-with-no-corners, turning in different directions as new images capture their attention.
Or so it seems. Now the dancers are doing warmup routines – stretching and arching and breathing. Their expirations can be heard, globules of sweat run teasingly down well-muscled limbs. Their feet can be heard. It is as if the concrete vibrates under them.
Now Neil Ieremia appears from nowhere and the dancers come even closer, encircling him. This audience is a part of the circle. He addresses their huddle, eyes locked like a rugby team listening to its coach just before kickoff. His quiet words reassure them. He exudes a confidence that instils, reminding them what they have achieved in rehearsal and that now is their time to shine.
As an ominously murmuring sound track growls beneath his words, and Vivaldi starts to filter through, his passion passes into each.. Truly motivating them. “Above all, enjoy”, are his closing words. Just like that rugby coach, this director and choreographer must now leave it to the team.
What immediately follows is an intermixed semi-documentary that’s almost an aside. It includes Neil Ieremia’s reflections, with a cross-faded soundscape ranging from hip-hop to old favs that pulse with everything from cultural drumming to electronic sonics. The images and the storyline start with Neil’s early days in Porirua, move to grappling with the cultural shock of being Samoan in a new country, and then disbelief from his own family upon learning that he wants to become a professional dancer. His reflections are intermixed with a pastiche of street dancing, some of it inside what looks like a concrete silo, and some with his early work. At heart Neil Ieremia remains a space cowboy, though dancing his way through life and into the present via snapshots of things and events that have remained with him. Spread across a 50-year period of recent NZ social and political history (the 1981 Springbok tour, Moruroa, Rainbow Warrior, Bastion Point, to name a few), it is akin to a dash of This Is My Life mixed with events that illustrate an Aotearoa story as much as a Neil Ieremia one. The impact on him is clear.
The finale however is a reversion to the performance audiences have been warmed up for.
Now things really get interesting as dancers run, leap, fly and echo a work premiered earlier this year. It is exciting and exhilarating, is filled with seemingly inexhaustible energy and is pure Black Grace.
And the cylindrical tube works too. Please remember that the audience is still ‘on stage’ and are almost a part of the performance even though it is never actuality, only a filmed recording of such. During one sequence where the dancers hurtle over, above and onto a series of large, rounded stage prop rocks, one of the rocks has a tiny wobble. And someone standing next to me gave a gasp and stepped back very quickly … just in case.
So, a success? Yes, for exploring a new medium. Yes, for bringing world-class contemporary dance to new audiences. Yes, for creating something of which this country can be proud even though it’s not quite ready for somewhere like Times Square – yet! However, this is only Room 1 of the Art of Black Grace. I cannot wait for Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Later I was fortunate to catch up with those initial passers-by and asked how they felt after leaving. They were thankful they hadn’t used their umbrellas, were staggering just a touch and a little glassy-eyed and then he said, “Man, I am utterly and totally exhausted just from watching”.
Session times every half hour;
Mondays – Tuesdays 6pm – 8.30pm
Wednesdays – Thursdays 6pm – 9.30pm
Fridays – 6pm – 11.30pm
Saturdays – 11am – 11.30pm
Sunday, Nov 27 & Dec 4 – 11am – 8:30pm
Tickets from www.blackgrace.co.nz