LINES We Draw: Reflections on Alonzo King LINES Ballet at the Joyce (5 May)

The necessity of flight.

We must – when we jump out the window –  learn to develop very agile wings on the way down.

You can’t fall halfway.

For the first second of falling it always feels as if you are ascending.

What a splendid thing it is to see the shadow of something flying. It leaves no footprints or clues.

–Colum McCann, Writing Ground


There’s nothing like them in New York.

Last week (May 5-10), Alonzo King LINES Ballet returned to the Joyce Theater with a three-piece program serving as a reminder that there are some amazing things happening in the San Francisco dance scene. These dancers possess the technical prowess and attack of NYCB, the individuality of Cedar Lake, and a propensity for eating up the space that any member of Complexions would envy–the overwhelmingly tall, long-legged physique prized by King certainly does not hurt on that front. Yet all of this is only a fraction of the experience that we are privileged enough to be a part of when LINES comes to this coast.

Kara Wilkes, Robb Beresford, Michael Montgomery, and Laura O'Malley in Concerto for Two Violins. Photo credit: Gaston de Cardenas.

Kara Wilkes, Robb Beresford, Michael Montgomery, and Laura O’Malley in Concerto for Two Violins. Photo credit: Gaston de Cardenas.

Concerto for Two Violins, named for the eponymous composition by Johann Sebastian Bach, opened the concert. King’s choreography here is as academic as LINES comes, dissecting and illustrating the music that would be familiar to any Balanchine fan (Concerto Barocco) or to anyone who has seen Paul Taylor’s Esplanade. It is a bright piece, one that showcases King’s idiosyncratic, contemporized form of ballet technique. The dancers look at and react to one another, so that even the most presentational moments feel as though they are being done not for the audience, but for themselves and each other. There were some slight issues with marked disparities in unison sections for the ensemble, both in timing and in details, that the dancers more or less made up for with their individual charms. The audience is introduced to the company through a demonstration of the same barely-restrained passion that is found in Baroque music: the dancers are exultant, only just held in by the form in which they work.

Michael Montgomery in King's "Constellation" during last year's Joyce season. Photo credit: Paula Lobo.

Michael Montgomery in King’s “Constellation” during last year’s Joyce season. Photo credit: Paula Lobo.

After a brief pause, the program shifted tonally with an excerpt from King’s The Radius of Convergence. Led by the quietly luminescent Michael Montgomery, Men’s Quintet did more than just mark the music: the dancing accompanied and informed the score, and vice versa. The men’s technical abilities are again on display (eliciting appreciative murmurs on more than one occasion from the audience), but one never has the impression that it is effortless. Sometimes they are easy, but sometimes they strain–not as though they are struggling to complete the movement, but rather that this way of moving is how they live their lives, both the easy parts and the hard parts. Here, especially in Montgomery’s case, the act of reaching is made sacred.

Writing Ground, the final piece in the program, took the above observations and elevated them to a transcendent plane. The music itself is sacred (early music from multiple religious traditions) and the accompanying, eponymous poem by Colum McCann takes a human life to a place of flight. The viewer is left not with concrete ideas or images, but impressions: a pair struggling to cross the stage, a woman and man equally concerned with defying gravity and keeping the other grounded, four men pulling a woman blindly reaching for the heavens back to earth. Kara Wilkes, in the final movement, was not only a standout, but a revelation. Like the best of King’s work, what is seen onstage is not a direct translation of the music, the poetry, or the concepts that began the work, but an experience that leads the viewer to intuit these ideas in a manner that words cannot express. The steps stop mattering so much as the motion and the reactions it elicits.

Kara Wilkes supported by Jeffrey Van Sciver, Shuaib Elhassan, Robb Beresford, and Michael Montgomery in Writing Ground. Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu.

Kara Wilkes supported by Jeffrey Van Sciver, Shuaib Elhassan, Robb Beresford, and Michael Montgomery in Writing Ground. Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu.

For me, the questions that came up were these: How do we live with ourselves, live(ing) with each other?

Maybe, I think, these are the questions we are always trying to answer. Maybe what makes a life is learning how to live. The ephemerality of the words we speak and the things we feel and the myriad ways we can(not) relate to one another are all there, in the dance. Maybe that is where the answers are: as ever-changing and ephemeral and impossible to articulate as dance can be.


She looked as if she had, at last, discovered the right question.

–Colum McCann, Writing Ground


Featured image:Kara Wilkes with Babatunji and Jeffrey Van Sciver (right) in Writing Ground. Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu

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