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Temptress: Chiharu Shibata in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.

Short on Ideas
By Mae G. Banner

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet
Jacob’s Pillow, Ted Shawn Theatre, Aug. 18

Two years ago, the last time Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet made the trip from their San Francisco home to Jacob’s Pillow, their best dance was accompanied by the great tabla player Zakir Hussain, who performed live and in sight of an enthralled audience.

This time, the best dance was Koto (2002), a regional premiere with music composed and performed by Miya Masaoka, who is equally accomplished in traditional Japanese court music, jazz and electronic music. Masaoka was seated on an upstage platform, shrouded in darkness, while her spare and resonant music supported the dancers in tensile loops and turns.

We could barely see Masaoka as she plucked single notes and played harp-like glissandos on her instrument, which lay along her lap like a distended dulcimer. I wish we could have seen more of her, because her music and rhythm-marking vocalizing were sometimes more interesting than the choreography.

Like many of King’s dances, Koto is organized in several sections. Between opening and closing passages for the full company, there was a marvelously realized quartet for women, a male duet by Artur Sultanov and Brett Conway, and a tour de force with the sinuous Chiharu Shibata tempting a male quintet.

The women, in ballet slippers, danced with fragile strength, a surprising melding of opposite qualities. One woman did a series of delicate, not-quite jumps, her feet barely skimming the floor and quivering in response to its surface exactly as the koto strings quivered under Masaoka’s hands.

In a display of stylized violence, Sultanov struck Gregory Dawson with a long stick, knocking him to the ground. Then, Sultanov, the attacker, fell exhausted, and Dawson rose, victorious without having returned the blows.

The costumes by Robert Rosenwasser and Colleen Quen were of horizontally pleated translucent cloth. They evoked images of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen; yet, they allowed for strenuous movement. For the curtain call, Masaoka appeared in a similar costume, an imposing figure in a wine-colored Kabuki robe with full pleated sleeves and hem.

King’s dances follow his stated philosophy, which is to embrace world cultures and to overthrow vertical severity of classical ballet with swooping or earthbound modern dance lines. His company, founded in 1982, is an international roster of a dozen dancers who are ballet-trained, but who also are schooled in Afro-Caribbean and Ailey techniques.

For all his interest in dances that convey ideas, King’s program last week at the Pillow focused more on dancers’ good looks and powerful technique. The men, especially, devour the stage with a fierce attack in lunges and jetés. Russian-born former Kirov Ballet dancer Sultanov was tireless and mesmerizing. He appeared in three of the four dances, usually as soloist or partner in the main duet.

In Tarab (1998), to music by master oud player Hamza El Din, Sultanov plunged through air turns as if he were blown by a fierce desert wind. In The Heart’s Natural Inclination (2001), he bent forward deeply and curled into himself as he glided slowly across the stage.

Except for Koto, which sustained its vocabulary of movement in emotional accord with its music, the dancers too often displayed the men as if they were bodybuilders and the women as if they were on a chorus line. All of King’s dancers have beautiful, powerful bodies, but the dances, including Klang (1996) seemed to be cut from similar cloth. King kept repeating the same set of showy high kicks or barren arm movements, rather than creating a singular vocabulary for each dance. Indeed, the program segued from The Heart’s Natural Inclination to Klang without a pause, so that I was not sure when one dance had ended and the next had begun.

The dancers looked great, especially the bare-chested men who shone in several vigorous solos, but compared to King’s Pillow concert two years ago, the ideas were few.

Image Conscious

Yin Mei Dance in /Asunder
Jacob’s Pillow, Doris Duke Studio Theatre, Aug. 18

Yin Mei’s dance drama /Asunder is a multilayered work that is less than the sum of its parts. This slow-motion tale of a Buddhist monk’s transgressions, performed last week at Jacob’s Pillow, aimed to reconcile Asian and Western ideas, but perhaps deliberately, ended with no resolution.

Taken singly, some of the parts were quite beautiful. Visual designer Cai Guo-Qiang’s fringed fans, the color of pink peonies, and his full-face masks created an air of mystery. Most wonderful were the arrows—scores of them, tipped with pink feathers—which the four dancers hurled by the fistful at a blank ceiling-to-floor scroll in the dance’s climactic scene. There they stuck, transforming the white scroll into a watercolor painting of cherry blossom branches.

Were we to conclude that out of violence, beauty is born? The dance offered the image, but no answer.

Yin was born and trained in China. She has been based in New York since 1985. In /Asunder, she’s joined by I Nyoman Catra, a Balinese theatrical dancer of great agility and power; Jeanine Durning, an avant-garde modern dancer from New York; and Will Orzo, a French horn player who danced anyhow. The four dance alone and in various combined duets, accompanied by an original score by singer-cellist Robert Een, a vocalist and two percussionists.

The musicians performed live, but offstage, which gave their sounds of lamentation and animal cries an otherworldly quality.

When /Asunder premiered in May, 2001, it included a text by poet Mark Strand. There was no text, written or spoken, in last week’s performance at the Pillow, so the movement had to speak for itself.

What did it say? Well, Yin’s long diagonal journey quietly sliced the space as she seemed to mime a tortuous message through an endless river, her flowing arms portraying calm, then agitation. Catra, in a white lacquered mask, presented a smiling face as he tried to possess her.

Durning replicated Yin’s movements in her solo, but her dancing was bigger and looser. In a duet with Orzo, she rode his hip and back in a long sequence in which she pretzeled around him and never let him get to his feet.

Later, in a sort of German-expressionist sequence that seemed totally out of keeping with the dance, Durning appears with the bell of Orzo’s French horn pressed to her bare chest. She exposes herself, and Orzo blows his horn, while she backs away slowly.

Asian and Western ways were almost reconciled when the two women, now dressed alike in tunics and pants, danced together freely. But, it was not to be. Orzo began throwing arrows at Catra, symbolically wounding him. Then, everyone threw arrows in a great free-for-all that ended in darkness.

—M.G.B.


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