Review: Black Grace, a New Zealand-based dance company, wows in The Clarice for one night

Black Grace, a dance group from New Zealand, performed their show 'Crying Men' at the University of Maryland on Thursday (Photo courtesy of The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center).

Black Grace, a group of powerful dancers all the way from New Zealand, performed their four-piece show Crying Men for a University of Maryland audience Thursday. The nonprofit was founded by Neil Ieremia, who continues to push how physically challenging dance can get.

The company’s movement is a blend of Pacific Islander indigenous dance with modern and hip-hop forms. Ieremia, hailing from New Zealand and of Samoan heritage, often draws from past community pressure to participate in more sports and physical activities. So, his work requires a deep muscular strength, unlike much else that I have seen. Many of his original company members were even rugby players.

The beautiful lighting throughout the performance highlighted deep muscle cuts on all of the dancers’ bodies — and it didn’t take long to understand how they got them. Sitting towards the back of the Kay Theatre, I could still hear the dancers’ breaths as they powered through the 95-minute performance.

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Many people are familiar with dancers smiling brightly on stage while making every movement look as effortless as possible. Those professional performers mastered the art of hiding the pain. But Black Grace forces you to understand how intense their movement is. The dancers still looked like superhumans, but their flexing muscles and heavy breathing proved how tough they really are.

Kiona and the Little Bird Suite was an incredible 20-minute opening. I felt like I was in a trance while watching the choreography combine indigenous forms with slap dancing. The dancers spoke, sang, and slapped their bodies to create satisfying rhythms that felt addicting. The group moved together seamlessly, which only strengthened their sounds.

After the strong start, Crying Men — Excerpts was the performance’s peak. Playing off some of the company’s founding ideas, the excerpts fueled a discussion about toxic masculinity in Pacific Islander cultures. Choosing to examine masculinity through dance, often considered to be feminine in Western culture, was a successful contrast.

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The dancers executed extremely physical movement as a deep booming voice and driving beats blared through the stage and house. They ran, stomped and jumped for those 30 minutes, which built an incredible level of intensity. Despite that, I was still close to smiling in awe from my seat, as I was amazed that they were able to do everything.

Method was the show’s final piece, and a quick ending following Crying Men’s conclusion. The dancers changed from their dark black costumes to all white. They jumped, turned and threw each other across the stage to much happier music.

Though only six minutes, Method somehow pushed the level of physicality even further. The dancers had an admirable amount of trust in each other. They managed to jump, roll and get up just in time to catch another adult body flying towards them.

No matter how much experience you have with dance, Black Grace can still impress. Even if you do not quite understand the movement or narrative, the show is still incredibly satisfying. Watching the athletic dancers just for physicality’s sake alone is amazing. Crying Men succeeded in making me leave the Kay wondering “How did they do that?” With ultimate success, the group brought a truly grueling but awe-inducing performance to campus.

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