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Flat-footed ballet: Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.

Where the Ethnic Meets the Classical
By Mae G. Banner

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet
The Egg, April 8

Poised in the mid-regions between ballet and weighted modern dance, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, in concert at the Egg, performed two abstract suites that suggested suffering, labor and the need to care for one another.

Before the Blues (2004), is a collage of at least a dozen pieces set to fragments of archival African-American songs, layered with soundscapes of wind and waves, cushioned with original sax solos by Pharoah Sanders, and patched with voiceover read ings by Danny Glover. There is also, unaccountably, but wonderfully, a climactic passage from a Corelli concerto grosso.

Swatches of music are paired with strips of dance in an enigmatic composition that’s held together by fabulous dancing and the subtle repetition of a few motifs, such as deep forward bends that suggest African roots, or long arms and legs extended at unusual angles. The nine dancers wear ballet slippers, not pointe shoes. They move with balletic eloquence, but with a flat- footed twist.

King’s choreography shows an acute sense of composition. He favors solos and duets, but likes to set them against groups of three or four dancers in the background, and then to merge leading and supporting dancers into new and shifting groups. Lines of dancers split into pairs who knot into clusters that form arresting stage pictures. Four dancers lift a fifth, seemingly against her will, and carry her until she frees herself and knocks them all to the ground, where, sitting in defeat, they scootch offstage on their butts.

The old moans and field hollers, gathered from the Library of Congress’s collection, sometimes draw attention from the dance, while Sanders’s breathy sax supports the movement and deepens its sadness. Glover’s nuanced repetition of a single word or phrase is sometimes healing, as when he says, “yes,” over and over, but, too often cross the line into self-indulgence.

The dancers, especially Chiharu Shibata, Prince Credell, and Gregory Dawson, seem filled with music as their chests move forward and back with the beat. Credell is stupendous in a proud solo to the Corelli concerto in which he embodies the nobility of an African prince.

King, based in San Francisco, often draws on world music that underscores the universality of dance and the human condition. Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner? (1998) is propelled by the speedy, strong and delicate fingers of the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

The six-part suite of solos and duets, often set against the company of dancers, infuses balletic form with the vigor of South Indian Kathak. In Duty, Joan Michael Schert presents Drew Jacoby, supporting her in a traditionally balletic way. Standing behind him, she puts her arms on his shoulders and whirls him around. Clearly, she leads the dance.

Schert solos in Faith, a wide-legged dance with lots of backward steps. The company of eight joins him in a unison passage that made me smile as the kaleidoscopic shapes stirred me to alertness. This was followed by Time, a swift challenge duet between Brett Conway and Shibata that set the dancers spinning until the music drove them into the darkness upstage.

Out of the stillness, the company surges forward in Wave. Now, Credell and Dawson ramp up the speed, like coriander seeds popping in a pan of hot oil. The duo becomes a quartet, then a trio as dancers are whisked in and out by what seems like inner forces, propelled by muscle, speed and torsion. The repetition of music and movement heats up to a fervent pitch—then, all is dark and still.

The final movement, Ma, is of a wholly different timbre than everything that has gone before. This duet between Laurel Keen and Brett Conway is an Indian Pieta in which the woman breathes the spirit of life into a man who has died.

The dancers are totally connected on what seems a mythic level in this sustained narrative that begins with Keen rolling a lifeless Conway up onto her lap, rocking him and cradling his head while the tabla plays a dirge. Gradually, she raises him to his knees, forcibly willing life into him as if breathing spirit into a lump of clay.

She places his feet on the ground, rises with him, stands him up and walks him before her. She lets him go. Then, her back to him, she puts his arms around her waist and walks, so he is following her as her arms spread out like angel’s wings.

She forces him, even kicks him into motion. It is not an easy birth. At last, standing alone, he jumps in place, and she sits and rests, godlike, and opens her arms to receive him again.

Ma is an engrossing dance, full of portent, which I watched unblinking and with bated breath.

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