|O'Malley and Babatunji. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton|
by Susan Kepecs
Alonzo King, founder and artistic director of San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, whick took the stage at Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on Friday night, March 11, is one of the great revolutionary artists of our times. What makes that so is actually quite simple; King takes the speedy, line-lengthened, plotless, “leotard production” breakthroughs of Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century American ballet and strips away virtually all of the artifice – the formalist conventions, rooted in court dancing from the days of Louis XIV and written in stone two hundred-plus years later by Marius Petipa – the curtseys, the tutus, the pointework, the exclusive use of specific, ritualized steps bearing French names.
People sometimes take King for a “contemporary” dancemaker, but that’s missing the point; there’s a glossy commerciality (like what you see from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) in what’s commonly called contemporary dance that’s utterly absent in King’s work. King’s astoundingly elastic, postmodernist, off-kilter choreography sometimes touches more lightly than others on straight-up neoclassical vocabulary, but it’s ballet nonetheless. LINES dancers, as King often says, are virtuoso musicians who play their bodies as instruments, turning sound into energy. And his Terpsichorean orchestra is honed to perfection with rigorous ballet technique. The result brings classical dance into the global, multicultural twenty-first century.
This approach requires over the top boldness, both physical and emotional, from the dancers. The works on the March 11 program were risky in additional ways. In the hands of a lesser choreographer, creating a new work to Bach’s double violin concerto in D minor – Balanchine used this in his most beloved ballet, “Concerto Barocco” – would be downright dangerous. But structurally and texturally, King’s piece is sparklingly unique. Yet King is acutely aware of what it means to make a dance to this particularly loaded piece of music, sprinkling his ballet throughout with winking references to Balanchine’s work.
In the first, Vivace movement, Balanchine has a corps of eight women on pointe, dancing in orderly lines with two female soloists representing the violins. In King’s piece nine LINES dancers fill the space with dynamic patterns, fronted by two women (Kara Wilkes and YuJin Kim, both remarkably fluid), plus the the bouyantly powerful Babatunji. A smidge of black church glory shines through; where Balanchine’s first movement ends with a courtly bow, King’s company leaps in unison, then spins, arms raised to the heavens.
The Largo movement picks up the daisy chain motif Balanchine loved to use in his ballets, including “Concerto Barocco” – but in place of “Barocco”’s corps plus pas de deux, King uses Wilkes and Kim with Robb Beresford and Michael Montgomery to create eyepopping moments of harmonious dissonance with two (shifting) pairs of dancers doing different pas simultaneously. The full company returns for the Allegro, flowing in and out of unison; at one point the dancers are all violins, flying forward one after the other, arms carving through space as the bow strikes the strings. And King has kicked the complex geometry of the first movement up a notch; you see not just the dancers, but the negative spaces between them, vibrating with movement. The Allegro demands nothing less – King’s patterns spring from his deconstructivist approach, but Balanchine’s more formal dance has the same vibration.
The very short “Men’s Quintet,” to a contemporary violin-based concerto by Edgar Meyer with saxophone virtuoso Pharoah Sanders, is an excerpt from a longer work, The Radius of Convergence. I’d have preferred seeing the Quintet in context, but what I did see was a showcase of male dance prowess. Soloist Michael Montgomery, a force of nature, moves in counterpoint to a corps of four men (Robb Beresford, Shauaib Elhassan, Jeffrey Van Sciver, Babatunji). The four often danced in a line behind Montgomery; at one point they stood still, lined up in profile, each with a hand on the next man’s head, like a row of ancient warrior sculptures. In feel if not entirely in look, “Men’s Quintet” is as modernist, in the sense of Graham or Ailey, as the Violin Concerto is post-Balanchine, postmodern ballet.
The very idea of dancing to wild sounds is radical – a hair’s breadth or two from dancing to the music of the spheres. In the 43-minute Biophony King goes there, with a remarkable score by Bernie Krause, who’s spent decades recording natural soundscapes in wild places. Krause coined the term “biophony,” which refers to “the collective signature produced at one time by all sound-producing organisms in a given habitat.”
Krause’s score miraculously contains all the myriad nuances of the world’s endangered habitats – the animals, the winds, the rains, even trees creaking. And LINES’ dancers use this score exactly as they use the Bach, or any other piece of music, riding its waves or moving against, through, or around them.
Biophany is very balletic — there’s a greater number of (artifice-less) saut de chats, coupe jete turns and pirouettes than usual for a LINES piece. King talks about ballet’s ultimate roots in nature, and this observation links back to his point.
Biophany is also a much more organic piece than either the Bach or the Quintet. It’s not a leotard ballet, but the production values are just a whisper – Axel Morgenthaler’s engaged lighting and Robert Rosenwasser’s gently nature-colored costumes suggest rather than illustrate the ecologies of the score. You can’t analyze Biophany, you just have to sit back and take in its diaphanous lushness. Having worked in some wild places myself, I can attest to the fact that King and company have nailed the essences of the places represented in the ballet’s eight segments. The Borneo rainforest in “Tempestas” breathes with plant and animal life; “Mare Nostrum” captures the furling and unfurling action of the sea on life within; at the Kenyan watering hole (“Still Life at the Equator”) Laura O’Malley and Babatunji as prey and predator are caught in the same breath-catching exchange that sends chills down your spine when the lions go after the antelopes on National Geographic specials. In the haunting Alaska segment, “Nunaviq,” Courtney Henry, floating through a string loose arabesque turns while wolves howl and birds chirp, isn’t a creature at all, but a quintessential nature spirit.