|LINES Ballet dancer Meredith Webster, center, with Hubbard Street Dance|
Chicago and Alonzo King LINES Ballet in Azimuth. Amber Bliss photo.
by Susan Kepecs
Established, highly successful dance companies don’t combine as a matter of course. I can’t rememver ever seeing two troupes merge in a single work. But on March 20, in Overture Hall, two very different organizations – the San Francisco-based Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago – perform separately and then come together in a brand-new work choreographed by King.
The sheer logistics of this temporary merging seem almost impossible. Both companies are multicultural and beautifully trained, but the similarities end there. Hubbard Street, which performs in Madison almost annually, is a contemporary repertory company known for clever, accessible works built on the technical triumvirate of ballet, jazz and “modern” plus a slick, Euro-chic aesthetic obtained via the company’s deep ties with Nederlands Dans Theater. Former Hubbard Street artistic director Jim Vincent left Chicago for NDT in 2009 (though he’s since moved on); Hubbard’s current leader, Glenn Edgerton, also has long-term NDT links, and Hubbard’s resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo, from Spain, is a Nederlands alum.
LINES, which appeared at the Wisconsin Union Theater twice, in 2005 and again in 2010, is simply the unique artistic vision of Alonzo King, whose artifice-free ballets – compositions of cosmic geometry at once more ancient than Europe and newer than today – are like images from the mind’s eye of a Zen master, framed in the tangled roots of western classical dance. In order to carry off King’s conceptions, his post-neoclassical ballet dancers possess an elastic vocabulary that subsumes the sum of human possibility without sacrificing perfection of line, form and flow.
The program consists of three substantive pieces, which, taken together, allow the audience see what each company is made of and then to ponder the mysterious amalgam that is “Azimuth,” choreographed by King.
King’s “Rasa” (2007), which opens the evening, was chosen, I suppose, because it’s a LINES signature piece that’s toured the globe. It features a score by Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, with whom King has collaborated several times. The dance is built of shifting pas de deux and ensemble movements that condense in the interplay of light, rhythmic energies and the astonishing physicality of LINES’ dancers.
Representing Hubbard Street is Cerrudo’s “Little Mortal Jump” (2012). “It’s one of Alejandro’s latest works,” Edgerton says. “I feel it represents where he is with his choreography right now. I chose him because he’s our resident choreographer, and “Little Mortal Jump” was made on the current company, so it also represents where all of us are right now. It’s a wonderful piece, entertaining but thought-provoking. It’s lighthearted but it turns substantial at the end, with the last duet. It’s a series of vignettes – there’s no story to it, but there’s a trajectory. Without being literal it takes you on an emotional path. It has incredible stage theatrics, and the music’s very powerful and dramatic, especially at the end. The work leaves you with this really great feeling.
“It’s a fantastic program,” Edgerton continues. “’Rasa’ and ‘Little Mortal Jump’ are vastly different, and then in ‘Azimuth’ [which features all twelve LINES dancers and sixteen of Hubbard Street’s eighteen] we have both companies together – twenty-eight people onstage. It’s very powerful, how all these artists with very different backgrounds intermingle.”
The collaboration came about, Edgerton says, because he was at LINES three years ago watching King’s company rehearse. “I was fascinated with Alonzo’s way of working with dancers –the way he was challenging them – and I wanted my dancers to experience that. Both companies are classically trained, but they approach that training differently. I said to Alonzo, ‘our dancers are so vastly different from yours – wouldn’t it be interesting to show that juxtaposition?’ But what we ended up with was showing the likeness instead. Alonzo made a wonderful work that shows how dance is a universal language; the two companies come together in movement and expression, and it’s very exciting.”
It’s not just the finished piece – the whole process was exciting, Edgerton clarifies. “My dancers loved working with LINES’ dancers, as people and as artists. I could see it in their faces, but I also heard it directly from them. I could see how the LINES dancers also were inspired by my dancers – it was a win-win situation all the way, and it was very enriching for all of us to work together.”
That said, most of the work took place across 1863 miles, as the crow flies. “The initial stage involved taking a piece of Alonzo’s into the company,” Edgerton says. That ballet, “Following the Current Upstream,” originally was created for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 2000.
“We got to live in that piece first,” Edgerton says. “After we absorbed it [it became part of Hubbard Street’s repertory in 2011], we started working on the collaboration. Alonzo came to Chicago to work on it, and then we worked on it separately. Alonzo sent us his notes and we sent our rehearsal comments or questions back – ‘what is the intention of this step or the other?’ We also worked back and forth via video, so we were well set up to fit the two companies together in a very short time – though of course there was a great deal of trust and understanding involved all along.”
After a year of this long-distance affair the two companies met at UC Irvine late last summer. “We engaged an old colleague of mine there, Jodie Gates, because we’d agreed that we should work on neutral territory so one company didn’t feel like the other’s guest – and we thought a university dance program would be interested in watching Alonzo create a new work, and in having students watch the process of two companies coming together unfold,” Edgerton says. “It all worked out beautifully. And then we reconvened in January, a few days before the premiere [at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, on Feb. 1].”
It’s worth noting that this program is only slated for four cities – after Berkeley it goes to Chicago’s Harris Theater (Mar. 14-17), and after the Madison performance it makes one last stop in Los Angeles, in June.
Despite the short time the companies spent together, “Azimuth” has beauty and power, King told me after the Berkeley premiere.
Azimuth is a perfect Alonzo King concept. In astronomy, the azimuth is the angle of a celestial object along the arc of the observer’s horizon measured from a fixed point, usually north; for example, due north has an azimuth of 0, and due east’s is 90 degrees. But since King’s cosmic geometry isn’t literal, I asked what azimuth means to him, and what he did with the idea in this dance.
“For me,” he says, “where a person stands is the axis mundi. Where you are as you stand on this sphere in space – and where you fix your attention – that’s azimuth. Where you’re standing and where your attention is are separated by distance. Art or love eradicates subject and object – when two become one, time and distance are anihilated because of absorption. The aspiration of a fixed figure at any point on earth is usually a diagonal, reaching up. How do you combine heaven and earth, bring willpower and goal and desire into one spot? The idea of the word ‘heaven’ is a trigger. People think of an old white man in the sky. But heaven is what your joy is. Humans want to avoid pain and suffering – to find joy that doesn’t go stale. Our choices are based on those things. Everyone has some dream or is in love with something and with that you want union, you want to get rid of separation. I love you – that’s a separation. Lao Tse says that the painter has to become the horse before he paints the horse. That’s what you have to do as a dancer. You’re inhabiting an idea. It’s not a step. If you just do steps you’re frozen, without luminance. So that’s the point of ‘Azimuth.’”
Like geometry, music is a key to King’s works. I’m always reminded of string theory – the idea that everything in the universe is composed of tiny vibrating strings, and so, as theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, “we are nothing but cosmic melodies” played out on the instrument of our bodies. For “Azimuth,” King chose some original music by Millennial generation Bay Area composer Ben Juodvalkis, and a lot of Russian liturgical chants. “Those Russians singing liturgical – you don’t hear it that often, and they do it so damn well, with a kind of release and Russian gusto and sincerity – it plugs into all kinds of release-based music. It’s not about a pretty sound, but a true sound, like the soul is singing. The Russians are very soulful in that way. And the technique is faultless. The source of that sound is a heartspace. It’s quite moving, and it’s important to put something that’s moving from the heart into the theater – people in the audience are so cerebral and battered by the reality of living life in the world. You want to embrace, not batter them. I was just reading an article on Alternet.com. The writer was bemoaning that art isn’t more political, that apolitical art is meaningless, and I thought – what’s more political than saying ‘you are the answer and you are the problem, and there are states beyond the halloween show of the world.’”
That’s a revealing statement. To “get” it – and to get the full impact of King’s ballets – you have to be willing to detach, breathe, and enter that state the mindfulness gurus call open space. If “Azimuth” turns out to be as effective as King’s works for LINES alone, the energies of 28 highly diverse, exquisitely trained dancers coming together at a fixed point – the Overture Hall stage – should offer plenty to meditate on.