BLACK GRACE & friends

Te Papa: Soundings, Wellington

16/04/2006 - 20/04/2006

Production Details

Choreographed by Sean MacDonald, Daniel Cooper, and Louise Potiki Bryant
Lighting by Jeremy Fern

A triple-bill progamme of new dance works created and performed through collaboration between Black Grace, guest artists and choreographers.  BLACK GRACE & friends follows in the footsteps of the highly successful  ‘new works’ season that premiered to critical acclaim in 2003.

Auckland season: 25 – 30 April, Concert Chamber, THE EDGE

Performed by Sean MacDonald, Daniel Cooper, Tamihana Paurini, Abby Cowther, Liana Yew and Solomon Holly-Massey

Dance , Contemporary dance ,

about 1hr 25 mins incl. 2 short breaks

Direction needed

Review by Deirdre Tarrant 26th Apr 2006

BILLED as three distinctive styles in one innovative season, Black Grace finally returned to dance in Wellington with Black Grace and Friends.

They have not danced here for some years in which their international travels have taken first priority and development of new choreography or a connection to New Zealand have appeared to have taken a back seat.

The energy and physicality that were trademarks of their style were missing from this season and the vocabulary and style of the three works offered were very similar – although Lou Potiki Bryant’s Night Blooms created a mystique and came closest to providing context and construction. Bryant’s flax forms and use of film to create the shifting night sky and perspectives on shadowy figures worked well.

It is always difficult to stage a triple bill and to order works to catch and maintain interest. The small company of dancers, Black Grace stalwarts joined by their friends for this season, danced well and there were sections that carried momentum forward and evoked response – Tamihana Paurini in the opening and closing phrases of Daniel Cooper’s gentle Behind I’s (why the apostrophe?) and Sean MacDonald as the reality man in Night Blooms in particular.

But Lewis Carrol’s words "curiouser and curiouser" kept coming to mind throughout the evening as there seemed no coherent direction or sense of performance highlights and the ‘sit in your seat’ intervals did not succeed in creating the punctuation needed between the works.

The lighting by Jeremy Fern was interesting to start with but did not find the innovation in the works to make them distinctive in any way.

Sean MacDonald’s On The Off Chance played with what he called theatre of the absurd, but the connections needed more development and a better sense of pacing to juxtapose the elements he set up. Set against a pile of randomly stacked chairs, this seemed to be also a visual statement about the dance.

Solomon Holly-Massy low and dark with children’s wind up toys was a nice touch as Sean himself sang the Kookaburra song but the accumulation of images failed to surprise, ignite or speak.

It was and performance that did not live up to the hype, publicity and expectation of an evening with this company. The dancers danced well, but the dances needed further development and a tighter technical control.

I was happy to see them and interested in three new works from these three choreographers. There was no mention of the director, Neil Iremia, who has made himself synonymous with the dance style and purpose of the Black Grace company and at the end of the day it seemed that a director was needed to pull the threads together to make this show work.


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Well executed and pleasant to watch

Review by John Smythe 18th Apr 2006

If it’s "Black" it must be dance. That seems to be the message for the month. But the only thing Black Milk (reviewed here 13 April) and Black Grace & Friends have in common is that one word. And this Black Grace & Friends show has little in common with its predecessors. There are quite a few black costumes, though, caught in transverse light against a black backdrop.

Four years ago I wrote of a "Black Grace company [that] continues to delight and inspire with their pleasure-generating, distinction-achieving celebrations of strong, lithe, supple and graceful brown bodies in space." This is not the same company, whose work at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festivals has had New York  and Boston dance critics raving.

That said, Sean MacDonald, Daniel Cooper, Tamihana Paurini and Abby Cowther have all toured internationally with Black Grace. They constitute the core of this group and are joined by "friends" Liana Yew and Solomon Holly-Massey. Of the three very different works, all well executed and pleasant to watch, two are choreographed by Back Grace dancers -Cooper and McDonald – and one by the third "friend", Louise Potiki Bryant of the Atamira Dance Collective.

Daniel Cooper’s Behind I’s explores the always-true notion that our heads (logic and reason) and hearts (emotions and passions) battle for supremacy, "but in the end it’s a partnership". Cooper states, in a programme note, that moments from a specific personal journey are mixed with his abstractions.

A grey-clad Paurini ances in solo silence, setting a vocabulary that is picked up by a black-clad quartet – Cooper, MacDonald, Crowther and Yew – mostly in male-female pairings, dancing to string quartets from Death and the Maiden by Schubert. Presumably representing male-head and female-heart, the women seek freedom then fall back on the men for support. From this they explore progressions that work through difference, and chasing each other, to give and take from all sides, with Paurini (representing Cooper in his personal journey?) joining in from time to time to stir things up or align with them.

Finally he is the one who is falls backward, requiring the support of what I take to be his creations. Alone and in silence again, he has either returned to square one or come to terms with the dual forces within. It’s not clear because while the dance is beautifully realised the scale of the work is small. By classical comparison, on the same theme, Euripides’ ancient Greek Medea has Jason’s head-intellect-reasoning collide with Medea’s heart-blood-emoting to generate a domestic tragedy of epic proportions (the original desperate housewife meets the ultimate logical robot). I’m not saying Cooper had to go quite that far but having greater things at stake would undoubtedly improve his work.

For something completely different, but still small scale, Sean MacDonald’s On the Off Chance doodles about with some fairly funny ideas which he’s happy to call a collage, presumably because he hasn’t been able to bring the ingredients together into something more coherent and therefore more entertaining. The jumble of chairs that is stacked into a mini mountain before our very eyes (because we’ve been exhorted not to leave, except for a toilet break, during the transitions) stands as something of a metaphor for MacDonald’s higgledy-piggledy assemblage.

To tracks from Janis Joplin, The Strokes, Able Tasmans and Zimmerman, plus the Shining Cuckoo bird call, a full complement of dancers play with the ideas in what looks like random fashion. There is a nurse whose red cross is elongated like a Christian cross (meaning what?). She hurts herself and rides a horse, created by dancers behind a framed picture of a horse’s head. A numbers game allows the dancers to pick an age and tell us, verbally, of significant experiences ("My first dance class … A trip to Disneyland … I got my driver’s licence … "I’m falling in love …").

A renovated version of the Kookaburra song is sung live (no longer may his life be gay), a couple of tiny wind-up sheep are let loose from time to time, a white smiley-faced doll sings Deck the Halls in a tinny voice, kids’ game-playing becomes competitive … One sequence that works really well involves a struggle over a chair that represents power and status: at last a clear idea we can hook into! And then it reverts to the hotch-potch, including a pop singer with admiring fans, the nurse in solo, boys fighting, the nurse on one leg …

"A world where the absurd is normal," proclaims a programme note. "Samuel Beckett has not yet left the building." Oh dear. Sorry. Wacky nonsense cannot be excused as absurdist theatre. "Absurd" is a relative term: either a logical premise is taken to an absurd conclusion or vice versa. And whichever way it goes, its purpose is usually to expose realities of the human condition and/or socio-political systems and structures.

So, with the Black Grace boys playing small and not sharing much, it takes their visiting Friend – Louise Potiki Bryant – to choreograph a piece that is relatively mature. Her Night Blooms is abstract, so open to subjective interpretation by each viewer, but it exudes a conceptual depth that inspires trust.

Beneath a full moon, daytime people – men in suits, women in frocks – morph into putiputi of the night. Fallen nikau fronds, stripped back to become long sticks with pod-like heads, wave eerily in the moonlit darkness. When suited men encase their heads with the pods, Bill Hammond’s bird men are evoked.

As I see it, the night liberates primordial forces, sensuous, natural and supernatural. But our modern daytime identities linger and the drama of the dance comes from our desire to shake off one and succumb to the other, or hang on to one and resist the other. The central figure – a man with a briefcase (Sean MacDonald) – epitomises the human struggle.

A huge flax-woven rose-like flower counterpoints the nikau ‘pods’ to suggest a native/exotic duality and the modern dress juxtaposes contemporary life with the timeless and elemental. Clearly I found myself engaged by, and responsive to, Night Blooms. But I can’t say it was a cathartic experience – which is just to say it capped an amiable night of relatively unchallenging contemporary dance.

My conclusion is that Behind I’s and On the Off Chance have been allowed to come to the public eye with not enough rigour applied to their development process, and Night Blooms, too, could probably benefit from having its form and content more thoroughly interrogated in the rehearsal room. If these are works-in-progress, two at least could go a long way further.

Just last year, the New York dance critics happily quoted promotional material that told them the "black" in Black Grace means "bravest and most daring". Well, maybe so then but apparently not any more. There is grace in their dancing, and litheness, humour and spirit. Anyone still feeling the after-effects of the wonderfully challenging Black Milk may find Black Grace and Friends a soothing antidote.


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