Airs and graces

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  March 23, 2010

From one section to another, the dancers change into various new costumes, by Adam Kimmel. These creations all look like designer adaptations of thermal underwear, but though they’re zanily crumpled or slashed, they can’t conceal the dancers’ unflagging virtuosity.

I’m not sure there’s a real progression, but the dance seems to get more extreme. There’s more turning and jumping, with explosive jutting arms. People heave their partners into stretched-out balances and cartwheels. A quartet changes partners several times on the run. The music seems to get denser, and nine dancers are all circling and leaping, and then calming down at last, to cluster at the edge of the stage in what must be exhaustion.

But no, they walk off, and the solo woman returns to do her turning, reaching dance as the others rejoin her. There’s a piano playing, and we hear the chorus again, the high voices blending in what might be a prayer.

I DRINK THE AIR BEFORE ME: Stephen Petronio’s terrific hour-long work felt like an encounter between mundane and super-specialized ways of dancing.
If Stephen Petronio never seems to run out of movement invention, Neil Ieremia, choreographer/director of New Zealand’s Black Grace Dance Company, works with a limited vocabulary. This ensemble of seven men and three “guest dancer” women was presented two weekends back by the Celebrity Series, the first dance company to play the newly renovated Paramount Theatre.

The idea of multicultural fusion performance has been around for at least two decades now, and Black Grace, which was founded in 1995, exemplifies the aspirations and limitations of the genre. In this program of short pieces and two excerpts from a longer work, the company celebrates Pacific Islanders’ identity, a tribal heritage now imprinted with European culture and religious practice, and including jazz and modern dance.

Mainly we sampled a modified Samoan male dancing style — beefy, wide-stanced stomps and body slaps, virile acrobatics, and rhythmic singing — and a more restrained, bouncy, swishy women’s style. All the short pieces were arranged for simple clusters of dancers with changing sequences of repeated movements.

Ieremia’s Gathering Clouds is a nationalistic narrative asserting the beauty and faith of Pacific Island people, though the selections seemed to make these points with the same movement ideas as in the shorter numbers. One section used some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a “sound garden,” according to the program note. Some technical glitch prevented the showing of a video that might have given a stronger context to the work. When the men began running and sliding to the floor, all I could think of was Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, which is also set to Bach.

The official opening of the Paramount will take place in the fall, but Emerson College, which has converted the old movie house into a new performing-arts center and residence, is hosting several performances this spring. (Tim Rushton’s Danish Dance Theater from Copenhagen will be here April 27-28.) In addition to the 600-seat mainstage, the complex houses a black-box theater, studios and practice rooms, a sound stage for the use of film students, and state-of-the-art backstage facilities.

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