writers on dancing


Of faith and blues and humanity

"Before the Blues"
Alonzo King
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, California
November 14,

by Ann Murphy
copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy

Alonzo King is a choreographer with a vision of humanity that can set despair and doubt before us and then absorb them into a world of beauty and light. In his latest and deeply moving work, "Before The Blues," he masters multiple levels of reality through dozens of images and vignettes about the African diaspora. A particularly iconic moment captures what Mr. King is after: delicately strong Prince Credell stands on a rectangular cube. One instant he appears to signify a slave on a slave block then suddenly, as in the shift of a hologram, he is a sculpture of a divinely shaped man elevated like a demigod on a pedestal.

"Before the Blues" is in fact chock full of such understated dualism, and Mr. King, like a magus, keeps fact and metaphor in fluid relation. The result of such poetry is the assertion of a deep faith in the underlying glory of life and the heroic capacity for human beings to endure the worst. For some of us at this point in history, nothing could be more welcomed.

At its heart, "Before the Blues" is a collaboration with jazz saxophonist Pharoah Saunders heard on tape (in certain tour locations he will appear live) and Sweet Honey and the Rock's Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. Along with their offerings we hear gripping archival field recordings from the Library of Congress following the Civil War, baroque music, and beautiful readings by actor Danny Glover. Glover's warm, beneficent yet mournful voice lends the work the heartrending quality of love poem and eulogy combined, especially the incantatory repetitions of "yes" and "I forgive you" that surface during the dance like gold.

The 15-episode work opens with a long rectilinear video of muggy looking water and tropical trees, and it is right here in this first image that Mr. King establishes the multiplicity of reality: is this the American South? Is it Africa? Artistically it is both, and in both places water was the road to slavery, and water is also the source of baptism, blessing, livelihood and escape. (Footage was shot by the gifted Axel Morgenthaler in Florida during the company's recent hurricane-ridden residency at the White Oak Plantation, a former slave-run rice plantation that now houses an extraordinary preserve of African animals.) Pharoah Saunders' haunting overture "Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord" accompanies the film, giving the image a doleful poignancy that is mysterious as well as obvious and ushers us in to the time before the blues.

When the film vanishes, we go back to essences: two silhouetted figures (the intrepid Gregory Dawson and pliantly boyish John Michael Schert in Colleen Quen's earth brown culottes) suddenly lunge into a blinding whiteness, like glorious kinetic sculptures, part Brancusi, part Dahomey. As back light attenuates their limbs and enlarges their torsos, and a dense, three dimensional soundscape of chirps, popping noises and forest commotion materializes, they perform a dance that combines the elemental and the refined, moving like the shadows of dancers dancing in firelight, kinetic Egyptian hieroglyphs, and 21st century ballet performers executing neo-Balanchinian abstractions. The African past and the American present are made contemporaneous. Whoever said ballet has no path to radical expression?

Mr. King is a subtle choreographer who has developed a language that seems each year to grow in complexity and nuance and speaks with slanting eloquence to the human condition, while never limiting itself to the specificity of history or politics. His choreography can be deceiving. The squiggling movement, the freeflowing and pointilistic phrasing can appear almost improvisational until one views work a second or third time and sees how intentional Mr. King's steps are. Where the choreographer is still weakest is in creating interesting large group unisons, although the few that materialized in "Before the Blues" came like a sudden rest or unexpected concordance. But what he lacks there he makes up for in steps and gestures that hit us like a flood of beautiful, dissonant notes. Besides riveting solos, his duets are especially potent. Pieta images appear and reappear as women cradle men who are somehow blighted, even dying, yet learn to stand again. Men bond and dance like tigers who are bound to one another in tenderness. Women are both Amazonian in their strength and beauty and yearning partners in their dances with men. All his company members seem pushed toward an extreme rigor; and when they reach it, which most in this current company of eight have, they can seem otherworldly.

During intermission, women waiting in the bathroom line wondered if there was a story to "Before the Blues." As in avant garde jazz, Mr. King relies on themes, but leaves narrative to accumulate through juxtapositions and insinuations rather than outright linear narrative. This allows him an allusive, almost Biblical field that no head-on story permits. (The Bible also had a literal presence: Mr. Glover read from Isaiah 40:31.) When Mr. Schert rolls a huge wagon wheel from stage right to left, upstage, and Gregory Dawson enters the area inside the wheel, we are not being told about slavery per se. But the references are there: Human beings as beasts of toil, the centrality of agriculture in slavery, wagons necessary to the system, wagons as means of escape, the oppression of blacks by whites, as well as the sometimes liberation of blacks by whites, and, even, existence as a cycle that rolls along by itself. When women move bent over at the hips clasping their ankles with their hands, he gives us an vision of self-imprisonment. When Gregory Dawson carries a hobo's bundle that is plundered, it suggests the journey of the runaway slave as well as the plight of the prodigal son.

With Maurya Kerr sidelined by hip surgery, elegant Laurel Keen proved here that she has achieved the grueling quintessential King style in record time and filled it out with a delicate lustre, while relative newcomers Brett Conway and Mr. Schert move with spongy, technically clean generosity. Although Lauren Porter Worth still lacks that fierce connection between the top of the head and the end of the toe that King's style demands, due largely to feet that still need strengthening, she is becoming a vibrant dancer at home in the spotlight. Chiharu Shibata and Mr. Dawson remain the company's rocks, while Drew Jacoby, with the body of a warrior goddess, is beginning to look at ease in the melee of movement.

As the piece dives into the post Civil War era, we hear field recordings sung by former slaves, like the dirge-like "Moan" with its unearthly homage to pain and suffering, and the uplifting words of Isaiah. Tethered dancers shuffle like the living dead. The company crawls like fugitives. But always, the images and allusions combine beauty and otherworldliness, whether through the women's delicate dresses (Robert Rosenwasser and Ms. Quen) or Mr. Morgenthaler's stunning lighting.

When Prince Credell in a diaphanous silk top and tank bottoms performs a solo in which his cantilevered developes seem to halt time and his tight, high pirhouettes appear to nearly lift him off the ground, not only do we witness a dancer of translucent gifts but we see a song to beauty, freedom and the luminous soul that oppression cannot extinguish. As Mr. Glover repeats healingly: "I forgive you, I forgive you" it becomes clear that it is this rare, wise, wide-eyed largesse of spirit, inseparable from all that is beautiful, that is the true heart of "Before the Blues." May Judith Jamison borrow this one for her own dancers quick.

Volume 2, No. 44
November 22, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy


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