LINES Ballet produces thoughtful program
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In the five years since Alonzo King's LINES Ballet last appeared in Pittsburgh, the San Francisco-based group has celebrated its 25th birthday and the prolific King now finds himself in great demand at top ballet companies around the world. His style, which stretches ballet to new limits, has taken on a global range and his dancers have achieved a comfort level in the abundant terpsichorean playground that he has created for them.
King is a living encyclopedia of dance that can't be tapped in one evening. Friday night's program at the August Wilson Center offered a glimpse into the past, with the African airs of "Signs and Wonders" (1995), and present, with a jazz-inspired "Refraction" (2009). The pair of works surprisingly provided a different dance evening than we last experienced, more warm and thoughtful than outright passionate.
That may be due to the intimate stage at AWC, but it remains to be seen as dance evolves in Pittsburgh's newest arts space. (A word to the wise: The seats at the back of the main floor, rows H through M, where the rake is steeper, have good sight lines.)
"Signs and Wonders" was more historically significant and more traditional, if that term can be used in conjunction with King. It was created for Dance Theatre of Harlem, ironically on "hiatus" for the past five years, and was named an "American Masterpiece" by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The nine-section work took a while to warm up. In the meantime, it introduced the audience to the King perspective -- the use of wide-open fourth positions and off-center balances -- both inspired by George Balanchine. (There was also a shimmering bourree quote, just a few seconds long, from Balanchine's "Apollo.")
But this was an impressionistic blend of ballet with the African landscape -- undulating torsos in a hunched walk, electrical impulses quivering along the port de bras, a call and response.
"Signs and Wonders" began to take off when a male ensemble took the stage, followed by the women, where the unison of the movement darted among different groups of dancers in wonderfully delicious ways. Later there were several significant duets, one where Keelan Whitmore and David Harvey toyed with manipulation, another where Caroline Rocher and Ricardo Zayas had a joyous exchange. But the highlight was an almost ceremonial duet for Laurel Keen and Brett Conway, where she illustrated a certain tension in her hunched torso.
"Refraction" was an ideal title for the King perspective, be it defining the body itself or the movement. In this case, the work also had a particularly supportive jazz score from pianist Jason Moran, with bass and drums. Given the cozy confines of the trio setting, "Refraction" sustained a mostly mellow mood throughout, particularly in an unusual ending where the dance simply drifted away.
The opening sections bore a startling resemblance to Paul Taylor's "3 Episodes" (1956), which was set to early New Orleans jazz. Taylor gave us swamp creatures with torsos open and hips askew. King channeled that idea into his own dancers, giving them a primordial connection where a man could tinker with a woman by her ponytail. King's initial frame of reference was hugely compelling, a rarity where the audience, barely taking a breath, was immeasurably drawn into the dance moment.
But where Taylor completed his trio of episodes on this idea, King used it as a beginning and then began to build connections in the dance phrasing and the idea of relationships.
The piece might have been called "Refraction," but it also harbored contrast -- the push and pull from a dip to a flying arabesque, a deep crouch to a scoot, an evolving daisy chain (also a Balanchine item) with periodic group silences.
Nonetheless the work moved expertly from the abstract to emotional alliances, demonstrating that King is achieving a clarity of intent in an all-consuming world.
First Published January 18, 2010 12:00 am