Siva – a monumental dance

Siva opens with all the drama and depth of a Caravaggio painting.

Siva by Black Grace
November 6-7, 2015
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

Siva opens with all the drama and depth of a Caravaggio painting. The lighting, or more the darkness, is dimly lit, minimal. The audience glimpses fragments of limbs and muscles gelled together as a single organism, motionless on the floor. Slowly they separate, beat by beat, dancer by dancer.

Breathing, stretching, reaching – the dancers pulse and push to stand, coming alive like a taniwha –  a sea-monster implied by the Samoan words rumbling through the air, “malie, tagifa.”  Meanwhile, large, white geometric clouds are pushed up overhead to set the scene. By the second and third section, Siva moves to an explosive display of athleticism and artistry. If creating dance is to “make vocabulary,” as Black Grace choreographer and artistic director Neil Ieremia describes, Siva is a poetry defined.

There are nine dancers, three woman and six men – one adorned with a pe’a, a traditional Samoan male tattoo, covering stomach to knees. Their costumes, by Pacific couture fashion designer Linda Lepou, are flesh-coloured and much like the superb lighting by Melbourne-based Paul Lim, pares things down to the essentials: bodies and beats.

To celebrate 20 years of dance, Siva is as “massive” as Mr Neil Ieremia promised it would be. There are multiple layers and mediums of art expressed using expansive, floor to ceiling animations of waves, giant river stones, towering blocks and acrobatic feats of walking upside down.

Certainly, Black Grace does exactly that – turn traditional dance on its head. While still being connected to the past, it is also an eclectic mix: of pirouettes and fa’ataupati (Samoan slap dance); of old Samoan songs like Minoi (move) and newer ones like Che Fu’s Hold Tight. 

Amongst this animated play of dance and music, is one with the inanimate objects on stage – the props. However ‘props’ would be a loose term, having witnessed the centrality of their role within the choreography. Jumbo white blocks have descended from the air and together with giant river stones on stage they become a parkour playground. Dancers leap over, on, around and tattoo their way across these; they transport, combine and recombine the vast shapes in various synchronised pairs, just in time for the next dancer to dive or land on top. The dramatic scale ratio of colossal, oversized objects to wiry bodies underneath is a little unnerving.

The energetic scenes change quickly, as one minute the blocks construct a wharenui, complete with dancer’s pukana and then with some swift manoeuvring, we see a typical scene of Samoan chiefs, seated around the poles of fale Samoa (Samoan house). In a nod toward early seafaring Polynesian ancestors, the blocks change again into a vaka (canoe). As a voiceover boomed, “The forest is full of ghosts, but no one is afraid,” fearless would be an apt word to describe the monumental work that went into constructing Siva.

But fearless or being brave is more than just an attribute in this production. As Mr Ieremia described to NBR in a recent interview, it is also an attitude embedded in the group’s name. Black Grace is a name borne of a juxtaposition of contrasting two ideas: toughness and beauty. Growing up in Porirua, ‘black’ was a slang word used to describe someone daring, someone who “got into a fight with a bully.” You were black if you were brave, tough and an outlier. Conversely, ‘grace’ was an entreaty made by a “really tough ballet teacher” during dance school; Mr Ieremia was told he needed “more grace.”  Together, Black Grace conveys a mission statement, a mantra in two words.

It’s this kind of intellectual and artistic understanding, this mixing of stories and ideas that makes Black Grace so successful and accessible. As one fellow audience member declared, Siva was “way better than I thought it was gonna be.” If the standing ovation at Siva’s end was anything to go by, it’s clear that given the chance, contemporary dance, especially those created by Neil Ieremia, is a rewarding and even necessary experience for lovers of art. Judging by the sensitivity, artistic quality and professionalism of Siva, the next 20 years of Black Grace look bright indeed.

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