Alonzo King LINES Ballet @ the Joyce

When I grow up, I want to be Meredith Webster. And I mean that quite literally, because she is probably a foot taller than me.

Meredith Webster is everything that a contemporary ballet dancer should aspire to be. She extends her arms to the sky and it is as though all of the air has been sucked out of the room because it is being inexorably drawn to her. This is a dancer who owns every millimeter of her length and understands what her body can do perfectly–on top of which, her presence is so absolute that it is impossible not to watch her, and yet hers is a quiet sort of authority, not one that screams to be looked at but one which you cannot but acknowledge.

I should probably also mention something about the rest of the company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet. After only one viewing, I fear I cannot do them justice, nor will I be able to really delve into this ballet as much as it deserves, but I’ll give you a few impressions.

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Today (22 March 2014) at the Joyce Theater, I had the immense pleasure of seeing Alonzo King’s 2012 ballet Constellation (click here to see several excerpts). The program notes on the ballet are as follows:

Sidereal time–the time of stars–is the way that astronomers fix their telescopes on remote constellations from night to night, since the earth spins them away each day. Celestial geometrics align our bodies with the complex grids of galaxies, and fireflies remind us that we can almost cup the stars in our hands.

In this piece, Alonzo King explores the orientation of our bodies to light. A ground-breaking collaboration with artist Jim Campbell, Constellation is both luminous and lucid, encompassing and intimate.

A scrim at the front of the stage initially separates the audience from the action. The back curtain is made of strings of what look like white orbs about the size of tennis balls; several of these are hanging from above into the space, glowing like fireflies or stars. Meredith Webster is the first of the dancers to enter the space and, eventually, claim one of the glowing orbs for her own. Other dancers do the same, some treating the orbs as though they are of a great weight, others as though they are simply pure, weightless light. As the ballet progresses through two acts, the orbs come and go, rolled off and on the stage or even between dancers. At one point, one of the men finds himself with four of the orbs and manages to dance with all of them. By the third movement of the first act the front scrim has been raised, making it slightly easier to believe that the dancers we are watching are actually real; by the last of each act, even the strings of orbs in the back have been covered by a basic black curtain, not an orb in sight.

The first act is serene, ethereal. Even the faster-paced sections give an impression of otherworldliness. The overall impression is of the dancers themselves being bodies in space, in sight but just unreachable; else-wise, they are reaching and contemplating, but not necessarily yet grasping the stars above. The second act is more up-tempo, the set and props more changeable; it opens in total darkness save for the light given by two orbs, one in each hand of Michael Montgomery as he moves through the space. There is a scaled down version of the orb-string back curtain placed downstage with which the dancers interact; in another movement one dancer wears an even smaller version like a cloak, a skirt, while two of the men pass between them a sort of scarf of the orbs. Mr. King almost seems to be asking, okay, we’ve grasped the stars, but what do we do with them then? Do we wear them, embrace them, fight over them, play with them? How heavy are they, these tiny balls of light, and can we bear the weight?

There was also a beautifulmovement in the second act (at 5:16 here)in which one of the women danced in the light cast by three light boards. Held and moved around her by other dancers, they showed the moving image of the legs of a crowd of people walking. She danced in their silhouette, under them, past them, and as an additional pair of legs in the crowd–just one pinprick of light in a larger constellation.

The final movement of each act was a pas de deux danced without any orbs in sight, the back wall a mere black curtain once the dancers emerge from behind the strings of orbs. In the first act, it was Yujin Kim and Robb Beresford in a sublime display of classical technique tempered by contemporary movement–Kim’s grande rond de jambe on its own left me breathless. In the second, it was Meredith Webster and David Harvey, lending the sense of unreality of watching a tragedy unfold from a great distance. The choice to have them both barefoot, in particular Webster, the first and only time we see a woman barefoot in the ballet, lent an incredible amount of intimacy to their interactions, especially in the moments in which they shared weight, pulling each other in, pushing themselves away.

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Webster and Harvey in the final pas de deux, with Maya Lahyani (left) providing vocals onstage. Image source

I honestly don’t have anything bad to say about this production. The movement, composition, music (vacillating between pre-recorded sound, classical music, a live pianist, and a singer who joins the dancers onstage), and set design were all brilliantly complimentary and made for a breath-taking experience. The New York Times might disagree, but that’s okay. Now, there were a few moments in performance where the unison wasn’t as exact as one might hope and a few wobbly legs in there, but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care because the dancers were so wholly invested in the movement that it did not matter. Speaking of whom…

I’d always heard that Alonzo King favored tall dancers (and been slightly annoyed by it, seeing as I’m 5’2″), but after this performance I completely understand why. These dancers are the best of both worlds. They have all of the precise articulation and spinal control that characterizes great modern dancers and the most beautiful technique and sharp lines you expect from the highest caliber ballet dancers. Their ability to be perfectly on their leg, executing seemingly endless turn combinations that somehow do not seem like tricks but rather natural manifestations of their movement, is matched only by how comfortable they are throwing themselves wholly away from their own centers. They embody every bit of length they have in order to accomplish movements that I was only vaguely aware were possible, and the rare moments when the entire company was onstage together seemed as though they might actually blow the roof off the auditorium because they needed–and deserved–that much space to dance. And on top of all that, they are so elegant and ethereal through it all that they seem to have achieved what the original founders and practicers of classical ballet back in the sixteenth century were aiming for:

“But if he danced…man might break some of those earthly ties and raise himself up, closer to the angels. The movements of the body…could tune him to celestial harmonies.”  –Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels

So here’s the point: if you ever have the opportunity to see this company, or any work by Alonzo King, do not under any circumstances pass it by. I only wish they were in New York more often.

note: The quote from Jennifer Homans is from an advance uncorrected proof of Apollo’s Angels, which is the only copy I currently have access to. If anyone knows that I misquoted her from the actual published version, let me know so I can correct it!

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