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Looking back at a stellar weekend in dance: Black Grace, Ashwini Ramaswamy and Bruno Beltrão/Grupo de Rua

These extraordinary dance performances left vivid impressions, evoked strong emotional responses and surprised us in ways we’ll remember.

You never know what you’ll see in dance, especially contemporary dance. You might have a general idea if you’ve seen a company before, or other examples of a choreographer’s work. But you might be wrong. Live performances are ephemeral. Films of complete dances are rare. Written descriptions can be puzzling. There’s no narrative or plot.

Dance has been called the art that disappears at the same time it is created. It is only retained by memory. How much, and how accurately, will you remember? How much, and how soon, will you forget? With the amount of work that goes into making a dance, it seems unfair that it doesn’t last longer, that we can’t play it later like a CD or page through it like a book or display it like a photograph.

Over the weekend, we saw three extraordinary dance performances that left vivid impressions, evoked strong emotional responses and surprised us in ways we’ll remember. Our dance card was full.

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Black Grace

On Thursday at Northrop, Black Grace, New Zealand’s leading contemporary dance company, delivered a combination of traditional Samoan slap dance and seated dance, modern dance and hip-hop, chanting and singing, live drumming and music by Vivaldi and Bach.

Founding artistic director and choreographer Neil Ieremia is of Samoan heritage. The dancers have Samoan, Maori, Tongan and New Zealander roots. During a performance preview, Ieremia talked about being asked, “Why Bach? You’re Samoan.” His answer: “Because I’m human.”

Black Grace
Courtesy of the artist
Black Grace is New Zealand’s leading contemporary dance company.
Watching Black Grace was an intense, totally involving experience. The dancers are strong and fast. They are always in motion, leaping, flying, running, falling, rolling, bouncing from foot to foot. In “Crying Men,” a new work that addresses the dark side of masculinity and confronts physical abuse, the dancers were fierce and terrifying. Their faces wore silent screams. It was hard to watch, and disturbing.

“Crying Men” was followed by “Method,” an explosion of pure joy. The movements were based on Ieremia’s boyhood memories of playing sports; the music was from Bach’s “Brandenburgs,” performed by the New Zealand Guitar Quartet. It wasn’t an antidote to “Crying Men,” but it left us with a happy ending to the evening.

Ashwini Ramaswamy: “Let the Crows Come”

On Friday at the Lab, a sold-out house saw what many of us had waited ages to see. Ashwini Ramaswamy’s “Let the Crows Come” took three years to develop, under the watchful eye and guidance of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music and its founder, Kate Nordstrum.

For the past seven years, Liquid Music has been one of the most exciting music series in the Twin Cities, or anywhere. The New York Times paid attention. Due to shifts in corporate funding, the series’ relationship with the SPCO will end in December. We don’t yet know what will happen next.

“Let the Crows Come” was one of three final SPCO-sponsored Liquid Music performances. It was also one of the most complex and fully-formed Liquid Music events we’ve seen. Liquid Music often presented works in progress, projects it had commissioned or co-commissioned, and some were in their nascent stages. But what we saw on Saturday was polished and sure.

Ashwini Ramaswamy
Photo by Jake Armour
Ashwini Ramaswamy’s “Let the Crows Come” took three years to develop, under the watchful eye and guidance of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music and its founder, Kate Nordstrum.
It began with Carnatic music performed by three musicians: percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy, vocalist Roopa Mahadeven and violinist Arun Ramamurthy. Ramaswamy slowly entered the Lab’s enormous stage and danced an exquisite Bharatanatyam solo of delicate gestures and powerful moves. It was similar to what we’ve seen her dance with Ragamala Dance Company, and she was wearing traditional costume. This wasn’t a Ragamala moment, but it was the Ashwini we know.

Then it changed. The music passed from the Carnatic trio to cellist Brent Arnold and DJ Jace Clayton, becoming singing cello notes, electronic loops, remixes and beats. Two more dancers appeared. Berit Ahlgren is trained in and teaches Gaga; Afro-Caribbean dancer Alanna Morris-Van Tassel was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch!” for 2018. Both are former members of TU Dance. Morris-Van Tassel soloed to Arnold’s music, Ahlgren to Clayton’s. They also danced together and with Ramaswamy.

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The Carnatic music and Ramaswamy’s Bharatanatyam dance were the core of the performance. Both were transformed. Ahlgren and Morris-Van Tassel filtered Ramaswamy’s gestures and movements through their own bodies and approaches to dance. You could still see them, but they were different. Similarly, Arnold and Clayton combined Carnatic music with their own aesthetics and styles.

Ramaswamy describes herself as having dual identities. She was born in America; her mother Ranee and sister Aparna, Ragamala’s co-artistic directors, were born in India, and Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance form. In “Let the Crows Come,” she created a place where her two identities could meet.

From its premiere at the Lab, “Let the Crows Come” toured to Carleton College, Ramaswamy’s alma mater. In March it will go to Lanesboro, and in April to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Like “Come Through,” an earlier project cooked up by Nordstrum, it deserves to be seen and heard more widely. A hugely successful collaboration among Bon Iver and TU Dance, “Come Through” debuted at the Palace Theatre in spring 2018 and is still touring.

Bruno Beltrão/Grupo de Rua: “Inoah”

On Saturday at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, we felt lucky to get out alive. OK, an exaggeration, but everything Grupo de Rua did looked dangerous, sometimes threatening. We feared for the people in the first row. Not really, but these are thoughts you might have while watching 10 incredibly fit male dancers move at hyperspeed, when one wrong move could mean a rocket-fueled fist to the face.

Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão started out teaching street dance at age 15, then formed his own company with a friend at 16. At first, they were competitive hip-hop dancers. Over time, Beltrão and his company – the other founder left in 2001 – have evolved, creating their own version of hip-hop, one that aims at connecting people and relies heavily on teamwork. One that includes moments of absolute stillness.

Bruno Beltrão/Grupo de Rua
Courtesy of the artist
Everything Grupo de Rua did looked dangerous, sometimes threatening.
We knew going in to expect that, or we would have been confounded by something that happened early in the performance. To the deep, low room-filling roar of Felipe Storino’s soundtrack, music you could feel in your bones, two dancers stopped and stood motionless near each other. They stayed that way for (best guess) five minutes before very slowly starting to move. It seemed like an eternity.

Grupo de Rua is super-fast, super-strong, and seemingly immune to gravity. When they throw themselves on the ground, they bounce. They speed-walk hunched over, fists nearly on the ground. They break, pop and lock into strange, bent positions, arms dangling. They slide on their heads and launch themselves through the air. They pick up and drop each other in moves that look shoulder-dislocating.

When two or three are dancing, you can focus on individuals. When all 10 are on the floor, it’s a tornado. How they get through a performance without broken bones and bloody noses attests to their virtuosity, Beltrão’s choreography and the time they put into getting it right.

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“Inoah” took place on a stage meant to look like a big, empty room with bare walls and high ceilings. Near the top, far above the dancers’ heads, video projections of narrow horizontal windows offered glimpses of the Brazilian outdoors: a mountain with trees, a bird on a wire. Clouds passed. Night fell and stars came out. The dancers continued in their fleetness and fury. It was thrilling to be there.