The carriage of some arms shouted “thwack” in their decisive blows to the air, while other others preferred to call out “bam” with an elbow or answer “kapow” with the flick of a wrist. Alonzo King is as concerned with port de bras as he is with the lower half of the body. This was in evidence two Fridays ago at the Joyce Theater as the men of LINES Ballet exhibited this toothsome tendency to unfurl and contract the upper limbs as expertly as the women. There was a collective inaudible hum produced when their appendages felt out a movement phrase with the articulation of many antennae creatures in unknown territory. From the first entrance, the dancers drew the audience in as they probed their world from the inside out.
At its best, King’s choreography felt improvisational. The dancers began in Resin as jazz musicians riffing on themes, taking turns soloing, and playfully crossing the stage in same sex duets that sparked with spontaneity. Yujin Kim and Kara Wilkes created obstacles for one another to jump through and Keelan Whitmore and David Harvey tumbled over one another in two duets that had the excitement of fearless contact improvisation. Tremendous extensions in highly articulated phrase work showed off the given instruments of all: bodies that could turn any cynical atheist into a true believer. Arguable the longest and most distracting of legs belonged to Courtney Henry. (She looks a little green now against the backdrop of seasoned artists in the company, but with legs reaching for the rafters there really can’t be limits to her potential.) I have not been so distracted by a pair of gams since encountering Gus Solomons Jr. biking down Second Ave.
At its worst, King’s choreography over lorded with a homogenous tone of self-serious beauty. By the end of Resin, it verged on gratuitous. I longed for any imperfection or silly interlude to break up the monotony of awe. Maybe even an out-of-turn, sidelong glance? Or unwarranted stillness? Which brought me to question–was there something shiny on the floor? The dancers explored solos, duets, and group sections with eyes focused downward, presumably in fierce concentration, as if they had headphones on, creating a fourth wall of invisible bricks between them and the audience. The same inward focus that had attracted me in the beginning grew old and walked the line of self-indulgence.
Luckily, these were the first world, potentially personal, problems forced upon the critic in a glare due to a simple lack of available imperfections. My fingers were crossed during Sheherazade when the sheer humanity of the pas de deux between Kara Wilkes and David Harvey, as Sheherazade and Shahryar respectively, saved us from the esoteric abyss. This was the moment when the dancers’ performance united with King’s rhetoric. I finally brushed up against the corner of his ” ‘thought structures’ which are created by the manipulation of energies inherent in matter, through laws that govern shapes and movement directions of everything that exists.” The magnanimity of this ten-minute marathon duet was created by Wilkes truly embodying the forces underlying the narrative; allowing her struggle, his violence, their love, and pure exhaustion to flow freely through her attuned body. The couple even went so far as to run at each other, throwing themselves into a simultaneously aggressive and pathetic chest butt in the air. By the third hit, they melted more than rebounding out of it. It was worth the price of admission to behold these two artists as they transcended their own limits. The audience was finally involved. We became their witnesses.
This same pas de deux also had the unfavorable side effect effect of dwarfing the other dances to mere divertissements, delicious but forgettable bon bons. This is not to say there were not stand-out, jaw-dropping flashes from Keelan Whitmore, a powerhouse with considerable quickness and finesse who gave us his all as the Vizier, and Meredith Webster, whose ooey-gooey undulations in her torso matched well to her liquid limbs (in Resin). Not to mention the insane arabesque balances of Ashley Jackson that had me muttering “really?” under my breath, followed by a “ok, get it!”
Yet, an overall disconnect divided the character of Sheherazade from her own tales and cohorts. They did not yield the same power as the woman. Maybe this was King’s purpose as he sought to focus on “Sheherazade as a woman and symbol” in his re-envisioning rather than Sinbad, Ali Baba, or Aladdin. What is missing in this approach is the frame story or “story within the story” technique that makes the literature this ballet is based on so engrossing. We are well versed in Sheherazade’s troubles, but lose the whimsy and entertainment of the fables used to negotiate her many creative escapes. The abstract nods to those interior parables did not further the larger allegory; the balance of light and dark was lost.
The production design by Robert Rosenwasser buoyed both of the evening’s works with its refined layers of sparkles, sheers, full skirts, peacock feathers, fabric drops, and sand (resin?). It allowed for the full viewing of these spectacular bodies while still adding considerably to the storytelling and mood. The commissioned score by Zakir Hussain for Sheherazade was not as successful; eeking by on the pleasant side until the emergence of the Rimsky-Korsakov theme during the revelatory pas de deux reminded me of the compelling original music.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your persuasion, this show left me with more questions than answers. Is King’s process more interesting than his final product? And how, as viewers, can we take his intellect and concepts, which are diverse and multifaceted, into account without having it discount what we see on stage? His work is in many ways much more interesting to me than classical ballet where steps are steps and narrative is narrative and program notes superfluous if ever read on accident. But it is also easier to simply enjoy pretty dancing when re-staging is the only thing at stake; questions do not interfere. This version of Sheherazade asks to be met on intellectual terms and not just gawked at through rose colored glasses.
When Mikhail Fokine choreographed the original Sheherazade in 1910 Les Ballets Russes, in between creating The Firebird and Le Spectre de la Rose, he was considered innovative and provocative because he challenged the conformity and conventions of ballet during that time. Fokine was searching for an honesty and naturalism within the ballet aesthetic. It is hard not to see a parallel mission in King’s ballets. But Fokine was eventually pushed out by one of his own performers, the more radical Vaslav Nijinsky who was willing to take on the “nondanceable” music of Stravinsky. In taking a peek back at history, I wonder if it is not time for the limits of beauty and ballet to be pushed once again. Though Fokine denied being influenced by a performance of Isadora Duncan in Russia, I have to wonder: who will be the next modern choreographer to “not influence” contemporary ballet?
Though I did have trouble enduring a whole evening of this movement, which felt repetitive and oddly conservative in comparison to King’s writings, I want to support more of it. I want to continue to see work by choreographers who value process, dancer individuality and development, and explore difficult constructs within a ballet paradigm. Even when some of these works might be more successful in a mixed repertoire, with a variety viewpoints to balance them out. And we, as an audience and community, must continue to engage it, break it down, and talk about dance as a collaborative art form honestly. Elevate our discourse. Save ourselves with our own stories.That is what King’s ballets, the gifts of these dancers, and our folk histories demand.