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Updated Friday, February 22, 2013 at 12:46 PM

Black Grace: familiar works fare better

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

Shorter is better than longer for Black Grace, the New Zealand contemporary dance company that takes inspiration from Maori, Samoan and other Polynesian traditions.

Led by choreographer Neil Ieremia, the troupe’s 11 performers are acrobats as much as they’re dancers. Their mastery of the intricate, shape-shifting patterns that Ieremia concocts for them is complete. But in the program on offer at Meany Hall, something is a little out of whack.

The first part of the show consists of two pieces that pass almost too quickly. “Pati Pati,” at a tight 10 minutes, synthesizes excerpts from older works in the company’s repertoire. Yet it doesn’t feel at all cobbled together.

Samoan body-percussion techniques play a key role in it, with dancers using claps, slaps, finger-snaps, shouts and hoarse panting to augment the percussion of the recorded soundtrack. One repeated movement — a truncated body-dip with hands reaching out — is especially striking.

A 20-minute excerpt from a 2007 work titled “Amata” (a Samoan word for “begin”) is just as rich, as its dancers, clad in loose red tunics, combine and recombine in ever-changing configurations.

Tight seesaw action melts into tumbles. Regimented moves yield to supple elaborations. In one hypnotic ripple effect, three parallel lines of dancers alternate floating ascents with liquid collapses — and look as if they’re on an invisible fairground ride rather than producing the movement themselves.

The percussion-heavy score, incorporating music from Fiji and the Cook Islands, keeps the whole thing flying.

That leaves “Vaka,” the intended centerpiece of the evening. The word means “canoe” in the South Pacific, and Ieremia links it to voyages through time as well as space.

It opens with a dazzling duet by a towering Sean MacDonald and a mobile Zoë Visvanathan, who seems able to travel up, down and around her partner’s body with no particular worries about gravity. Their work promises great things for the hourlong piece — and there are great things in it.

Its ensemble passages are one complex movement-fugue after another, sometimes taken at collision-risking speed (there was one mishap Thursday night). Inventive lifts and curious landings, repeated with variations, lend some structure to the proceedings. But by its halfway point, “Vaka” seems to be going on for no good reason, its progress marked mostly by the dancers’ shifts in costume from black sarongs to something more contemporary and casual.

When it takes a multimedia turn, the dance literally stops in its tracks. Projections of New Zealand landscapes on a cloth banner are followed up by a video collage projected onto the bare backs of three dancers: a litany of news events that include earthquakes, 9/11 and (I think) New Zealand anti-nuclear wrangles.

Ieremia is clearly going for a Big Statement on the destiny of his part of the world. But it staggers under its own weight.

The dancers give it their all. Their endurance — which they fool you into thinking is some crazed, self-renewing energy — is amazing. But even they can’t take this overstuffed epic to where it needs to go.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Dance review

Black Grace

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $20-$45 (206-543-4880 or www.uwworldseries.org).


Duncan Cole
Members of New Zealand’s Black Grace dance troupe.




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