Alonzo King’s Revelation: “Before the Blues”
King’s Lines Ballet
Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet and his San Francisco Dance Center are big on the west coast, and the company is well-known around the world, but seldom seen and apparently little appreciated in New York. What a shame. Their program at the half-filled NYU arts center Friday night was world-class, to say the least, and something different for New York audiences. This is a company of ballet dancers who have added so much technique and style to their classical training that they seem to be able to do anything. It’s ballet, on pointe as well as in slippers and barefoot, but with the shoulders, hips and ribs freed to lead the way. The effect is ballet with sizzle and sway, like that invented by Balanchine in his jazzy mode, but here developed further into a whole company style. All this is in the service of a master choreographer, whose dances are as authentic and soulful as they are sophisticated.
King’s new ballet, “Before the Blues,” is an evocation of the black experience in the south. At first it looks suspiciously like Hollywood: the piece opens with a recorded saxophone wail by Pharaoh Sanders and a cinema projection on the back wall—a rolling shot down a big river at dawn. It could be the opening of a new Civil War epic. But then the dancers come on, and we know we’re in the presence of something real. The form is episodic, and the sound is a collage from everywhere—scratchy field recordings of gospel singers, a baroque concerto, Pharaoh Sanders, sounds from the environment and electronic effects, and a passage from Isaiah read by actor Danny Glover: “They that wait upon the Lord...”
The dancers move in a ballet of struggle, that goes to the edge but never sinks into despair or defeat. Their relations are troubled, haunted by conflict, but never broken. What’s remarkable is the steady emotional pitch that is sustained throughout, a feeling of grace in chains. This is underscored by Glover’s spare narration: “I forgive you, I forgive you” he intones, as a man and woman, weighed down by oppression, struggle for dominance over each other. And at the end, “I love you,” with an image of running figures projected on the wall.
This may sound too west-coast touchy-feely, but that’s not the way it looked, largely because of the strength and sureness of the dancing, and the integrity of the choreography. There is no miming of emotions here, but life itself in motion, bodies resisting and yielding to other bodies, fighting to free their own impulses.
The subject matter and the gospel music invite a comparison with Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations,” which I happened to see last month, for the first time in many years. Alonzo King does not come off second best. The Ailey piece, from 1960, still has its moments – a passionate pas de deux to “Fix me, Jesus” comes to mind—but at other times it has an atmosphere of play-acting, as though slavery and racism are being presented as historical phenomena rather than human experience. King brings it home, and this is why he is able to pull it off with a multi-racial company (only three of his nine dancers are African-American). Oppression is localized in time and place, but universalized as experience. And we believe it.
The second half of the program was King’s 1997 ballet, “Who Dressed You like a Foreigner?” to music by the Indian tabla drummer Zakir Husain. Here the dancers project a meditative aura, even while whirling and flying to match the trance-like fervor of the music. Eye-catching was Drew Jacoby, solid on her toes even as she pushed her body continually past its points of equilibrium. And eye-popping was Prince Credell, a native son from New York’s LaGuardia High School of the Arts, who returned with a wild, spinning solo, so fast and articulate that he looked at times like he was under a strobe light.
“Who Dressed You” ends with a slow duet for Laurel Keen and Brett Conway, in a tableau like Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” the man’s body draped over the kneeling woman’s lap. He is wounded, weak and dependent, slipping in and out of helplessness. She comforts him, lifts him, grows exasperated, kicks him and rolls him, leads him like a poor animal. She does everything but turn him loose, which is the one thing she can’t do, because these two are linked together with an unbreakable bond. It’s the connection between people—difficult, maddening as it is—that provides King with the rich source material for his choreography. Like an Indian raga, his invention seems as if it could flow on forever, but instead runs its course and returns to stillness, leaving us with an indelible trace of intense experience.
The company, on tour, had just four performances in New York, January
18-23. Thanks to NYU for bringing them here. Please bring them back. I
volunteer to paint posters, or whatever it takes to help fill the house
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