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Alonzo King's Lines Ballet

World Premiere with Jason Moran and The Moroccan Project

by Toba Singer

October 23, 2009 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

“If something seems strange, taste it anyway,” Alonzo King advises his audience as he promises us a nourishing performance.  With Ballet more and more trying on the mantle of Big Business, shooting all available angles from the reality show to the box office, it is restorative to return to the sheltering arms of LINES Ballet to discover what’s been bubbling up from Alonzo King’s crucible of pure movement.

This season’s performance is divided into two acts: Act I is “World Premiere with Jason Moran,” Act II, “The Moroccan Project.”  Jason Moran is a jazz pianist who trained at Manhattan School of Music and whose work is recorded on the Blue Note label. The musicians and vocalists who are part of the Moroccan Project are Bouchaib Abehadi, Yassir Chadly and Hafida Ghanim, and they play a variety of instruments, including the oud (lute) , the guenbri (a three-stringed bass-like instrument), the qarqabas (metal clackers) the darbukkah and taarija (percussion instruments).

In recent LINES seasons, King has sought to collaborate with musicians inside the United States, such as Moran and Pharoah Sanders, but also from parts of the world where the music is unmannered, authentic, and not likely to make its way across big business barriers or vestigial geographic borders which conspire to impose 19th Century-biased delimiters.  The music—in this instance piano with a curious and short interlude of very loud drumming—issues from that semi-legal realm in the U.S. music world carrying the intoxicating label of “jazz.”  Moroccan music brings with it the mysteries and intrigues (for U.S. audiences) of the Kasbah and the choreography is fully a movement response—as a concordance for dance—to that music.

In Act I, the dancers are dressed very simply, the bare-chested men in light green long shorts and the women in white gauze.  David Harvey and Brett Conway roll, pose and stretch along the floor while very thin, glowing vertical cylinders descend from above. Caroline Rocher joins Harvey in a flexed foot pas de deux where she’s the embodiment of strength and he, bearded, looks monastic, almost Franciscan. They grapple through a series of downward-accented movements. In the third set, Laurel Keen and Meredith Webster offer a delicate contrast to the sinewy, ripped-muscle work of Corey Scott-Gilbert and Ricardo Zayas, whose backs are featured in ways that we never see on the classical ballet stage.  There’s more of a theme than a story, and the deft, slow, deliberate piano playing marshals the steps.  Brett Conway’s solo in set IV acts as a summation of the theme, shepherding you into a deeper appreciation of what has by now more fully announced itself.  In set V, Caroline Rocher lives up to her name, as solid and planar as a silica-studded rock. She both draws the attention to center stage, while at the same time shedding not light, but luminescence on the subject.

As all the dancers take the floor, strung across from stage right to left like an odd assortment of finely-chiseled beads, we begin to realize that this is an anti-ensemble ensemble, each fully articulated in his or her distinct cosmos.  Even in the tightest coupling, no pair of eyes ever meets another, and each dancer conscientiously guards his or her own integrated strivings.  This doesn’t  stop a burst of movement from an individual dancer from being so powerful as to spur a contiguous dancer into a jump or slide halfway across a quadrant.   So much content, yet so andante the piano jazz!  A high premium is placed on what the Phoebe character from the TV series “Friends” might term “bendy-ability.” The dancers fold into and out of each other like pieces of a vulcanized puzzle.  A pas de deux by Laurel Keen and David Harvey so consciously explores every sinew that it seems to be asking “Have I left out any single detail or body facet?”

A quartet in set IX sends Ashley Jackson front and center.  Each of this company’s women adds some specific strength to complete the group’s integrity, but Jackson feels like the eponymous Alonso King woman. She is theatrical, strong, fast-moving, and her extensions reveal a molybdenum-like stamina and take-no-prisoners attack. As with Brett Conway and Corey Scott-Gilbert, you could guess that she would rather die than stop dancing.  Brett Conway is left on the stage to press through a solo that shows his great directional range; his facility takes him as far as he wills himself to go.  As he is joined by the others, we have to recognize that if nobody looks anyone else in the eye, it is because they are not strangers.  Their work makes them so deeply familiar with each other that it is their human substance that forges their communication. As they assemble into a statuary grapevine, they become their own power station; and even as they lean into each other in perfect stillness, the energy is palpable.

A men’s duet between Corey Scott-Gilbert and Keelan Whitmore is so frenetic that you’re wondering whether we could please buy them a couple of balances. After their stunning show of virtuosity, you also wonder about the slope-shouldered, droopy exits that are overly “natural,” as their carriage ebbs too casually for the stage.

Suddenly the music stops being piano and starts being drumming, and the women who are dancing seem to battle with the volume.  Keen and Webster show us the athletic part of balletic and eventually win out.  In their quivers are the arrows that target the axis where Life meets Art.

Act II, by virtue of its name, is place specific.  Two columns of gilded fabric are suspended stage right. Cinderblocks, jauntily assembled, suggest a village wall. Instead of sloped shoulders the men show us their épaulement and launch multiple pirouettes and generous ballonés.  The accents remain downward, except for a sly lift now and then, as if to say, “Hey, if we choose to, we can do this!”  The costumes are saffron-hued, men in large skirt-like coverings and women in teddy-length gauze tops with flared tutus.  Music rattles from an ensemble of singers and musicians seated in the pit and wearing robes, with the men in red fezzes.  The blend of cultures is in fine fettle, a kind of third world encirclement flanking the North American Jazz artist. This could remind us that his musical roots are in Africa, and Morocco is the northernmost point on that most amazing continent.  This collaboration seems to say that Dance, including Ballet, can locate its integument in the world of real people who are not European aristocrats, nor their miserable indentured servants. Keelan Whitmore is the precision instrument carrying this message, deft in his placement as he asserts dominion over the space. Take it as a lesson about how real power is generated--respectfully, as the outcome of organic relationships.  He is planting seedlings of movement that bloom as the seasons go by.  Laurel Keen is passed ceremoniously from man to man, neither higher nor lower than they are.  Just when you are jonesing for a Rose Adagio with three long balances, Laurel Keen breaks into a solo that releases her from her burdens in a joyous dispatch of energy. Rounding out the discourse is a clapping sequence that offers a few clues as to where the Moorish Flamenco jaleo tradition hails from.

As we leave the theater, my dance writer colleague and I agree that King’s work is a world apart from anyone else’s.  If it doesn’t seem to “go” anywhere, maybe that is because the destinations currently on the list hold no special allure for him; and perhaps he has discovered something much more engrossing in the rest of the world’s own front yard!

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