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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Daring, Explosive Rite

Rite Of Spring
Alonzo King Lines Ballet
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, California
April 17
, 2004

By Ann Murphy
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy
published 19 April 2004

It takes a combination of innocence and chutzpah to make a new Rite Of Spring to Stravinsky’s 91-year old, still incendiary score with its cacophonous brass explosions, haunting violin breezes and hypnotic insinuations by bassoon, clarinet and flute. It turns out that Lines Ballet’s Alonzo King has enough of both not only to take Rite on, but to come close to meeting it on its own terms. Even if King’s Rite has passages that flag next to ones that soar, he answers Stravinsky fiercely enough to have crafted a terrible beauty all his own.

According to the 19th century poet Keats, a poem "proves itself upon the pulses," meaning its power lies in its ability to mark the body of the reader or listener with its music and the images that ride it. This is doubly true in dance, and King, with unison work of glorious potency that breaks new ground for the San Francisco choreographer, often meets Stravinsky pulse by dissonant pulse. He has also used the brilliant and sophisticated atavism of the score, with its motifs of mystical union and ritual sacrifice, to forge a deep and satisfying synthesis between his edgy, jazz inflected neo-classical style with his newer Africanized movement vocabulary. This is a development that seems indisputably to flow from the influence of the Ba’Aka people of the Central African Republic with whom he worked in collaboration three years ago. And by going back in time, to sensuous movement and earthy images that predate ballet by many thousands of years and that draw from African dance’s spiritual relationship to nature and the body, King brings classical dance into the present and gives it new shape for the future.

Rite opens on Laurel Keen, a lovely ruminative mover who dances with a combination of willowy strength and sensuous introversion, When the light comes up she seems to materialize upstage left in a bath of beautiful light (by designer Martin Gagnon), briefly seeming suspended in time. Then, while the beautiful high-pitched bassoon sounds its first haunting notes, and the musical line slips through the air and lingers, Keen forces her legs forward in stiff parallel position as though they have never moved before, her arms awakening as she lunges. She hasn’t long to be alone in this place. Soon she is joined by seven other women in the "Dances of the Young Girls," and, awash in green tropical forest light against a green rectangular band of deeper green, they begin to jut their elbows, flex their hands, twist and torque like insects on the forest floor. Before long, as the musical motifs pile up, they explode in unison.

With unprecedented clarity, King turns from solos, to duets, to small and large group formations in the 14 sections of the work to describe the multifaceted nature of relationships between people, animals, the earth and the heavens. There are recurrent intimations of wild creatures as the dancers club their fingers. Outstretched arms suggest elephant trunks while the Down Dog position the company frequently assumes momentarily looks gorilla-like until it morphs into pure abstraction bathed in glorious golden light that rises up from the ground.

To get the needed numbers to make Rite populous enough, King includes young dancers from the School of the Arts and the Lines Ballet School. Although the teen’s bodies haven’t achieved the same chiseled look of the Lines dancers, their ability to fit into the ensemble and dance the grueling sections of leaps and stomps is remarkable. In "Ritual of the Abduction" young Maya Morimune and Carlos Venturo dance with a conviction that makes up for their lack of experience.

Although "Dance of the Earth," led by Brett Conway, Prince Credell, Gregory Dawson and John Michael Schert seems underchoreographed and needs more torque, it is richly compensated by Prince Credwell’s solo (Section 9, Introduction), which follows. This has a feel of an elegantly philosophical and balletic soliloquy and is performed against a beautiful grey swirl of light. Angelically, Credwell, who has a powerful torso and long, thin articulate legs, combines the might of a thoroughbred Cunningham dancer with the tender depth of a danseur noble as he piqués and turns in on himself. This loftyness is reinforced when several men scuttle past and behind him as he moves unseeing, as though these men embodied memories, or hidden but nevertheless ever present ancestral traces. King soars here in using the stage space to create a sense of layered time, or multiple realities coexisting in one place.

Like Credwell, the glorious Maurya Kerr, who dances with an air of possession these days, embodies in "Procession of the Sage" a timeless figure supported like a statue of a god at the head of a procession. Reminiscent of the Ba’Aka processions, this one is an agglomeration of solo performances, each dancer performing the same steps in his own time. Elsewhere, King sets small cadres of men in competitive leaps, like young warriors.

From Rite’s solitary moments King repeatedly leads us with an abruptness that meet’s Stravinsky’s into explosive unison dance that is the most satisfying I’ve seen King create, although the company needs to keep honing its attack and refine its unison work to be able to meet the music’s ferocity. In the "Dances of the Young Girls," the women combine counterpoint and canon, circle dance and line dance with clear African hitch steps and Czarda-like twists that knock our socks off. In the culminating "Sacrificial Dance, The Chosen One," King has the full load of dancers maniacally throw what looks like rice flour at the twitching, desperate victim, danced with apt despair by Corinne Larsen Hass.

Ironically, when the movement is strictly neoclassical in Rite, which it rarely is, King tends to fall back on a clichéd array of piqués and attitude turns. This doesn’t happen in the beautiful program opener "The Patience of Aridity, Waiting for Petrichor" with 12/13ths of the music composed by Bay Area composer Miguel Fransconi (with Okkyung Lee on cello) and 1/13 a snippet of Edgar Meyer’s first movement of his Violin Concerto.

Petrichor is the smell of water on dry rock or earth after a long period of drought and alludes to the oily, mineraly perfume that wafts into the air, which comes from a residue of plant oils. The dance, however, applies the image of dryness and moisture in a haunting existential sense. The opening image is of two bodies fused, arms upraised. Pliant, boyish John Michael Schert slides down Maurya Kerr’s body and, evoking Prodigal Son, coils around her legs. Frasconi’s score with featured cello along with electronic and nature sounds sends out spare melodic lines ruptured by silence, then replayed in variation, and King mirrors this pattern as four solos follow, each with a motif, from flinging developés (Gregory Dawson) to complex rotations around the body’s center (Drew Jacoby). Each new section, including the duets and quartets that come later, seems to express a variation on a state of being and each state is both tortured and beautiful, benighted and seeking illumination, often literally, by moving into a pool of light. Schert is a marvel in his ability to melt into the difficult torsions and anguished lunges King creates while maintaining a quality of innocent acceptance. Kerr is the Muriel Maffre of Lines, at this point able to perform wholly anything King gives her, including the delicious throw-away portraits of Josephine Baker in the program’s "Baker Fix." But all the dancers dance with a conviction that distinguishes Lines from most other companies of its size, and it comes through as much in the duet to Coleman Hawkin’s Love Song from "Apache" as it does in Rite. And as we have come to expect, Robert Rosenwasser designed most of the quietly elegantly costumes, with designer Colleen Quen throwing in some to-die-for dresses that opera patrons may soon be vying for.

First:  Prince Credell
Second:  Laurel Keen
Third:  Drew Jacoby and Prince Credell
All photographs by Marty Sohl

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 14
19 April 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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