Dance Review: Black Grace returns to Jacob’s Pillow with stunning new work and an old favorite

Members of Black Grace performing "O Le Olaga- Life" in a triumphant return to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. All photos by Danica Paulos.
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When the New Zealand-based dance group Black Grace made its US debut at Jacob’s Pillow in 2004, the stunning performance resounded around the world. Former artistic and executive director Ella Baff had made yet another “discovery,” and Black Grace established its reputation for bold, beautiful, vigorous dancing the likes of which had not been seen on this nation’s stages. Not only was it the first time Black Grace had performed in the US; it was also the Pillow’s first (and thus far only) presentation of a dance company from New Zealand (now also known by the indigenous Maori people’s name Aotearoa). In addition, the all-male dances particularly resonated at the Pillow, given the venue’s history as artistic home to founder Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers.

Black Grace made its much-anticipated return to the Pillow this week. In her introduction, current director Pamela Tatge noted that this performance was supposed to have happened in 2020, marking the 15th anniversary of Black Grace’s last Pillow appearance in 2005—when their popularity propelled a leap from the smaller Doris Duke stage to the main stage Ted Shawn Theatre—but COVID dashed those plans.

Not surprisingly, the return of Black Grace was well worth waiting for. Tatge informed the audience that the three-dance program included one older piece that she had requested, and in his own remarks, the company’s founding artistic director and CEO Neil Ieremia joked that he had to find the dancers who could do it. This was the very short opener Minoi, based on a Samoan nursery rhyme and incorporating a traditional form of Samoan dance called Fa’atuapati, or “slap dance.” The curtains part on six bare-chested men in black sarongs spotlit on an otherwise dark stage. At first they sing/chant the song—arranged by Ieremia—together, rooted to the ground, gradually adding more full-body moves, shifting from unison to contrapuntal movement and sound. Percussive foot stomps, body slapping, and hand clapping set the rhythm as recitation of numbers in English subsumes the song. The dancing and vocalizations become more fierce as the dancers propel themselves from the ground, extending toward the sky, before the abrupt terrestrial end, punctuated by a unison shout of “Hey!”

The all-male Minoi, by special request

In a brief pause, Ieremia explains that the second piece, Fatu, was inspired by a painting gifted to him by the esteemed Samoan artist and dear friend Fatu Akelei Feu’u. He also tells us that in addition to being the painter’s first name, “Fatu” is the Samoan word for heart. Ieremia noted his surprise, upon opening the painting, that it departed from the artist’s typical work of traditional patterns, depicting abstract swirls in white, red, and gold on a black background. From his description, it seems the dance brings the painting to life, with tall male dancers James Wasmer and Rodney Tryrell, in red and white streaming costumes, making petite Demi-Jo Manalo look even smaller in her gold ensemble, all moving nonstop across the three-dimensional canvas of the stage, which at times is lit with a geometric pattern. Manalo’s dancing is the most balletic choreography of the evening; she moves quickly and weightlessly in her solo and partnering segments of this piece.

Sharing the stage with the dancers, drummer Isitolo Alesana adds booming percussion to four songs by the contemporary Polynesian band Te Vaka. We are reminded that members of Black Grace are, in essence, what Broadway calls a triple threat. So while the three dancers swirl, leap, and gracefully tumble across the stage, a few minutes into this short dance, three other dancers eventually join the drummer upstage, singing acapella; as we see even more in the third piece, all have the presence of actors in addition to their dancing and vocal chops. Manalo’s dancing is the most balletic choreography of the evening; she moves quickly and weightlessly in both her solo and partnering segments of this piece.

Demi-Jo Manalo in Fatu

It’s a bold move for a choreographer to set a dance to Vivaldi’s Gloria. Upon hearing the opening strains, most contemporary dance fans immediately envision Mark Morris’ iconic dance of the same name. But Ieremia took on the challenge, and the resulting work, O Le Olaga — Life, could end up as significant as Morris’s in the pantheon of dance.

In his preface, Ieremia tells us that the titular phrase is like the English phrase “That’s life,” and calls this new dance a tribute to his parents, reflecting on how they change as they age. I’m not sure I would have picked up on this interpretation had I seen the dance without the choreographer’s introduction, but the presence of an old man, and later an old woman, in some of the work’s many vignettes might have tipped me off that the piece seems to be made up of remembered and re-imagined scenes of life.

It’s got a striking opening: the tall, thin dancer Aisea Latu in what looks like a short dark-patterned dress, sporting a huge afro, silhouetted into two dimensions, like a shadow puppet, against a fiery red-orange backdrop. He’s rooted to the ground, wide-legged, making bouncing moves as a bit more light takes him out of obscurity. He abruptly exits upstage and quickly returns, carrying a stiff figure that looks like a mannequin but is in actuality another dancer. He arranges his stance and limbs, then heads offstage again to bring in and arrange another, and another, until there’s a diagonal line of perfectly still mannequin/dancers, whom Latu continues to adjust and re-arrange. They eventually come alive, and the dance takes us through all 12 movements of Gloria, plus a few other segments in silence, with shouts, or set to the song Malu A’E Le Afiafi by the New Zealand-based Samoan family pop band The Five Stars. The visual device of silhouette is a refrain that returns again and again, sometimes with fully lit dancers in the foreground, thanks to masterful lighting design by JAX Messenger.

Masterful lighting catches figures in silhouette as Demi-Jo Manalo dances downstage in O Le Olaga- Life.

It’s a bold and mysterious work for the full company. One segment begins with a tall, robed Kura Te Ua striding onstage while twirling traditional white Maori Poi balls; upon impact, they release a cloud of powder, looking like a ritual, bringing to mind Catholic priests swinging censers in services. She is joined by a man holding a tall staff that then seems to be a spear which he wields like a martial artist. A cluster of dancers come together in stillness, on the ground upstage, again in silhouette, and then emerge into light and movement that subtly suggests rowing on water.

Aisea Latu is a central figure in O Le Olaga- Life by Black Grace.

Toward the end, Latu is again center stage as a group of dancers encircle him; each holds two thin rods upright, then gradually lower them over his head as he cowers with an exaggerated expression of agony or fear. It’s as if something is closing in on him—age, fears, disease, memories… all these interpretations could work.

Throughout the piece, interspersed with moments of stillness, the dancers soar, spin, and shout, yelping, yipping, and chanting, impressing the audience with the clarity and power of their movement and their unflagging energy. At the dance’s conclusion, the audience rises to give Black Grace a much-deserved standing ovation, hoping that it won’t be another 15 years until these exceptional dancers again grace local stages.

Black Grace performed in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, July 27–31.

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