~ by joel martens ~
They say that music is the universal language. It’s inherent to all human conditions and a language that shares stunning commonalities, no matter what place you inhabit on the globe.
Another expression we share as humans? We dance.
Drop yourself anywhere on this diverse planet, no matter how remote and you will find some form of dance movement. It may not be on a gilded stage, or choreographed in the style of a grand, classical ballet, but it will be there. The gift of joyous abandon to physical movement, engaging rhythms formed by sinew and bone, as compelling be they in a discotheque, just beyond the proscenium or around a jungle fire. In whatever form, it is a beautiful thing.
Some may be better-equipped to execute the ritual, indeed, some spend their entire lives perfecting it. Classical ballet offers a certain kind of beauty through controlled, physical perfection and modern dance seeks to break free of those bonds, creating a genre of ecstatic expression that is in many ways, limitless. Movement imbued with richness culled from unique cultures and traditions, creations for which innovation is the paradigm.
Black Grace, founded in 1995 by Neil Ieremia, is one of those groundbreaking troupes filling the world’s stages with dances that reach across social, cultural and generational barriers. Exceptionally physical, filled with intense beauty and raw power, their work is drawn from the company’s Samoan, Māori, Tongan and New Zealander roots. It is unlike anything you have ever seen and will have you entranced from the moment you set eyes on them.
Sean McDonald has been with Black Grace since its start, beginning he says as an all-male troupe of ten in one of Auckland’s old library halls. His career beginning almost by accident at 15 when he won an “underage rage” dance competition many years before. “It was a complete surprise, I think I just had a lot of energy and was just enjoying the music, but it got me interested.” McDonald explained his early days even more, “At the time, I was leaning towards economics and accountancy! I started off doing theatre and school musicals, but in my final year of high school, Limbs (our national modern company at the time) took a workshop. The teacher said I had potential and should think about taking it up seriously. So when I finished school, I auditioned for a full time diploma course in Contemporary Dance (where I met Neil) and got in. I did that for two years and then did a further year at the New Zealand School of Dance, which had more of an emphasis on classical technique. From there I started working as a freelancer and Black Grace was one of my earliest professional gigs.”
He talked more about his early days with Black Grace and what they were trying to create, “Neil wanted to tell stories in modern dance from a Polynesian perspective, which there hadn’t been up to then. We were a bunch of Samoan, Māori and Tongan men who wanted to dance, we all started training late, but had a passion for it.” McDonald went on to explain the rarity of such things in their cultures, “Contemporary dance as a career option, especially for men, was totally unheard of. We wanted to show that it could be and to make it more relatable and accessible to our families and cultures.”
“When I started, the dance industry was small, especially the contemporary scene,” McDonald said of his early beginnings. “Of course, there had been a legacy and history of dance here in New Zealand and there were two major dance schools, one classically focused and the other contemporary, which had only just started.” He went on to explain further, “Dance, as well as song (waiata) and percussion are very much part of Pacific cultures. Māori oral histories depicted in waiata and actions or movements came from those. It was how knowledge of the past, of ancestors and of where you came from was shared and passed down. Back when we were a warrior people, games were used that trained and tested physical agility and prowess…Over time these became actions in dance.”
Black Grace’s choreography is incredibly compelling, intense athleticism, physicality tempered, with a cohesiveness that sets it apart. McDonald discussed the roots of that physicality, “Neil comes from modern dance training, but also a sporting background, as did a lot of the early and successive dancers. New Zealand has a strong athletic history, especially rugby, which Neil incorporated into rehearsals and his work from the beginning.” As to the bonds of trust, McDonald explained it like this, “That sense of a tight, unified, cohesive unit working together as one? That comes from hours of rehearsal, repetition and drilling. The process requires a deep engagement and commitment. Things are worked out clearly one step at a time, to make sure we all know what we are meant to be doing, the confidence and trust grows naturally.”
McDonald explained the creative process that the troupe goes through when creating new works. “It differs for each piece, but generally Neil will have the idea or concept first. He’ll think about it and do research for a long time before getting into the studio. Music is the next important element and influences greatly the physicality.” The process is not just based on individual ideas, it is collaborative, “When it does come time to start finding movement, we have discussions about the concept and Neil may task us to come up with different movement ideas, which he then can shape into what he is after. Or as he did in ‘As Night Falls,’ his latest work, he didn’t tell us much at all, only when he felt we needed to know and started making all the movement himself.”
When asked what to expect of their performance, Sean said the audience should expect “A different perspective on the world today from the South Pacific. It will be a program of dynamic, sublimely athletic, percussive dance that is visually complex and musically rich. It may at times portray darkness and sadness, but through it, there is both beauty and hope.”
Count me in.
Black Grace is performing in Downtown San Diego at the Spreckels Theatre on Saturday, April 8. For tickets and more information, call 858.459.3728 or go to ljms.org.