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New Zealand troupe pulls out all the stomps

BECKET -- Black Grace: The name combines a word that in New Zealand is slang for daring and bravery with a quality not typically attributed to men. It's exquisitely apt. Never before has this reviewer seen a group of male dancers who seemed so gentle yet breathtakingly virile. The New Zealand-based all-male troupe can rock the house with thundering stomps, macho body slaps in syncopated rhythms, and acrobatics that send the dancers crashing into one another. Yet they can just as convincingly sing in sweet three-part harmony, accompanying their vocals with gestures that softly curve and dip.

The 10-year-old company, the breakaway hit of last summer's Jacob's Pillow season in its US debut, makes a triumphant return this week in a program of five repeated works from last summer and three US premieres that showcase the company's superbly skilled dancers (seven men with three guest female dancers) and the strikingly imaginative vision of founder/choreographer Neil Ieremia.

The works that resonate most strongly are those in which Ieremia fuses traditional Samoan and Maori dance with contemporary movement. ''Traditional Challenge/Hand Game" is a vivid tapestry of sophisticated rhythmic layering based on a traditional Samoan dance form and children's hand games. The dancers, seated in chairs, create propulsive interlocking volleys of slaps, claps, stomps, and grunts.

In ''Minoi," the company's rousing signature piece, the performers preface a vibrant slap dance with an old Samoan nursery song that gradually morphs into a ''Sesame Street"-inspired counting song.

The most introspective piece is the lyrical ''Deep Far," a kind of ritualistic rain dance in which four men repeatedly form lines and circles, sometimes promenading with arms opening wide then curling in, as if embracing the air, at other times jumping in buoyant, arched-back leaps, like whales breaching. It's mesmerizingly gorgeous in its simplicity.

Two works set to movements of Bach Brandenburg concerti are in a more conventional modern-dance vein. ''Method" begins with striking drama, as dancers take turns flying full-throttle into a pool of light like moths to a flame, then seem momentarily trapped by its glare. But as the light expands, the piece opens into an exuberant romp of spins, jumps, rolls, skewed leaps, and midair cartwheels, the dancers bouncing off one another like pinballs. Ieremia draws freely from Paul Taylor's signature ''Esplanade," with dancers flying into one another's arms and hopping over lines of bodies rolling across the stage. The 1995 ''Fast Bach," a US premiere, has a similar dynamic, undercut slightly by a sense of tension.

The delightful ''Human Language" is a playful, nonstop frolic for seven men and three women beneath a full moon. The flirtatious opening shtick with balloons is a riot; the piece is marred only by some cartoonish silliness midway through.

The real surprise is Ieremia's new ''Open Letter." Set to Terry Riley's stringent ''Requiem for Adam" and danced by guests Abby Crowther and Desiree Westerlund, it is a stark, postmodern portrait of turmoil and isolation. The two women dance with a raw, almost feral energy that sends them flailing and careening into one another. Yet no matter how many times they push, pull, and catch each other, they never emotionally connect.

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