Sunday, April 14, 2019

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Madeline DeVries and Shuaib Elhassan in Pole Star
Photo Manny Crisostomo

Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Spring Season
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 12th, 2019

A gift of any Alonzo King LINES Ballet performance is the opportunity to see the company’s stunning dance artists. Even if the individual choreographic works don’t necessarily speak to you, their technical bravura, exceptional eloquence and authentic grace are indisputable. And the dancers were absolutely on fire Friday night as LINES opened its spring season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I can’t stress enough the gift and privilege it was to witness them in motion.

The program itself, a double bill featuring the return of 2016’s Art Songs and the world premiere of Pole Star, also impressed. Both pieces mine the dialogue and exchange between movement and music - a rich line of inquiry that was central to the troupe’s fall offering, which included a nod to Baroque musicality and a collaboration with Kronos Quartet. Six months later, LINES continued that foray into the sound/body connection.

In music, counterpoint is a compositional tool, where motifs, lines or voices are experienced as simultaneously independent and interdependent - independent, in that they certainly can stand on their own, and interdependent, in that they also work together to create a sumptuous aural palette. In Art Songs, Artistic Director/Founder/Choreographer Alonzo King looks to that concurrency, and places movement as a counterpoint to Baroque, Romantic and contemporary composers. Costumed by Robert Rosenwasser in whites, silvers and black velvet, the company contributed an additional artistic line to the recorded instrumental and vocal selections, and in doing so, added a riveting tone of desperation and passion. While there were a few ensemble sequences, the majority of the work was expressed through six chapters of pas de deux (and one trio). And the drama was intense. Relevés were informed by frenetic urgency, as were surprising contractions in the head and upper back. Dancers rapidly slid across the floor and then stamped their feet to the ground, as if trying to extinguish a fire. LINES’ sky-high extensions, super flexion and attitudes in second were abundant, though keeping with Art Songs’ intensity, dancers quickly crumbled after hitting one of those extreme postures. Recorded music can sometimes be tough in dance performance, but here, because the choreography was having an active contrapuntal conversation with J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann, George F. Handel, Henry Purcell and Lisa Lee, the atmosphere felt very alive.     

Babatunji, Michael Montgomery and Shuaib Elhassan
in Pole Star
Photo Manny Crisostomo
But if you were craving live music as a frame for dance, Pole Star, King’s collaboration with famed Vietnamese musician/composer Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, fit the bill - a forty-minute work of intersecting textures, layers and moods. From the orchestra pit, Võ’s hauntingly beautiful zither rose, occasionally interspersed with text and ambient sounds. Billowy smoke poured into the space. Projected on the back cyclorama was a film (by Jamie Lyons) of bright green rolling hills, their color matched by Rosenwasser’s wispy, flowy costumes. Adding to that lush environment was King’s evocative choreography. Pole Star didn’t read as narrative, but it wasn’t abstract either - charged emotions were unmistakable and potent imagery, ever present. As in Art Songs, LINES’ signature choreographic positions were aplenty, though, here they were also infused with unexpected movement practices and traditions. Some sections were clearly inspired by military drills, others by martial arts. Twisted, serpentine torsos abounded, as did vignettes of falling and catching oneself. Grounded, percussive footwork unison spoke of a shared experience while aggressive phrases conjured confrontation. Such a broad collage of tones and qualities! But for me, what was most impactful in Pole Star was the juxtaposition of the body and the projection. Seeing the company against the mountains (and later blades of grass) brought an interesting question of corporeality to the table. The sense of place had become transitory and fluid. At moments, it felt as though the dancers had actually been transported to those natural settings and were dancing amidst them.

LINES spring program definitely tackled movement and music from two distinct vantage points – Art Songs and Pole Star were very different from each other. No question. But having said that, within the body of each piece, there was a strong sense of sameness. From the first light cue to the final blackout of both dances, their energy, quality and dynamics were very similar. Too similar for this viewer. And a side effect of remaining at one energetic level is that the work ends up seeming long. Neither Art Songs nor Pole Star actually were too long, but unfortunately, they felt that way.    

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