Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet
LINES Ballet, which is running this week at The Joyce, is an aptly named company in more ways than one.
The most obvious reference is to artistic director Alonzo King's choreography, which is as streamlined by classicism as the dancers who bring it to life.
But 'lines' is a word that has many other meanings: there are lines in art and architecture; in poetry, song and drama. Specific definitions of line can be found in mathematics and physics, and more broadly defined as boundaries, they are also central to philosophy, psychology and politics.
Generally speaking, lines are abstractions that allow us to make sense of the world by dividing and connecting its parts. In the program they are currently presenting, the members of LINES demonstrate that this wider definition is as relevant to the company today as when King started it three decades ago this year.
The program consists of two recent works evocative of the East. "Resin," which premiered last year, is an elegy of Sephardic culture; "Scheherazade," from 2009, is a reinterpretation of both the story itself, and the original work created on the Ballets Russes in the early 20th century.
Both pieces rely on music to provide the underlying narratives, leaving it to the dancers to flesh them out, less by playing characters than by embodying moods and ideas. The stories of the Sephardic diaspora and "Arabian Nights" are therefore not so much told as felt, humanizing the exotic subject matter in a subversion of balletic tradition.
"Resin's" score is a compilation of Sephardic music both sacred and secular, including vocal and instrumental recordings from Turkey, Morocco, Spain and Yemen. The name of the piece refers to the substance that bleeds from a "tree wound" and hardens into "tears," the derivative source of rosin used by violinists and dancers, as well as myrrh, which comes from the Aramaic word for 'bitter'.
The piece opens with a suspended white sheath rising to reveal a lone male dancer (Paul Knobloch) clad only in trunks, looking fragile and unprotected outside his cocoon. Halfway through and at the end, the dancers bathe in visually stunning showers of salt pellets, a substance that may be interpreted as the resin of human tears.
The dancing in "Resin," however, seems to speak more to the resilience and strength of the people portrayed than their vulnerability: sleek, sexy and virtuosic, the dancers move in a way more suggestive of triumph than tribulation.
Such luxuriant and expansive movement could easily undermine a story of struggle, and at times, the choreography does seem to be more of a showcase for the dancers' suppleness, athleticism and lines.
Impossibly long limbs curl and unfurl -- often off-axis and in sinuous shapes suggestive of the Orient -- but passing through classical positions along the center of the body (first-position arms, legs in passé) that serve to prepare the eye for the glory about to unfold.
Such stylistic choices lead to some self-indulgent moments, particularly in solos. Overall, though, the effect is poetic and richly evocative, thanks to King's singular talent for combining classical and contemporary idioms. The familiar patterns and fluid grace of classicism form a kinesthetic bond with the audience, ultimately making it more sensitive to the discomfort of jagged lines, jerking movement, and other contemporary abstractions of struggle.
A similar style of movement prevails in "Scheherazade," which Jean-Christophe Maillot commissioned for the centenary celebration of the Ballets Russes. The score is composer and tabla master Zakir Hussain's reworking of the original by Rimsky-Korsakov, and the choreography, loosely referential to Fokine's.
The entire work is a sumptuous visual feast: costumes by Robert Rosenwasser and Colleen Quen include billowing pants in rich colors for the men and for the women, gorgeous, beaded lace and peacock-feather tutus.
Sensuously colored and textured fabrics also feature prominently in Rosenwasser's sets, which, together with the music and undulating movements, create the feeling of incense hanging in the air.
But quaintness and exoticism are not the point of King's story of the greatest taleteller of all time. For him, Scheherazade's imagination was a means of saving not only herself, but also the rest of humanity and -- ultimately Shahryar himself -- from his own vengeful brutality.
In King's staging of the story, dancers Kara Wilkes (Scheherazade) and David Harvey (Sharyar) portray this in two standout scenes: in one, they are tethered to each other at the ankle by a yard-long rope. At first, she very much appears to be bound to him in servility, but as the scene progresses and she begins to gently manipulate the rope to her advantage, it appears that he is the one bound to her in love.
This power play continues in a second, climactic scene, in which Shahryar stalks like a predator and flies into a rage. As suspended lanterns drop to the floor on what may be the fall of the last of the 1,001 nights, Scheherazade disarms him not by pushing him away, but by drawing him ever nearer.
As the lanterns rise again, he succumbs to her completely, and having saved her own head, she cradles his in her arms.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet ran through May 13 at The Joyce, 175 8th Avenue. For more info, please visit www.joyce.org