San Francisco, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
26 October 2012
The name of a work of art often influences the way we perceive it. The same painting when shown with different titles will elicit different responses from viewers according to what it’s called. When Alonzo King’s latest choreography premiered by his company LINES Ballet, the printed program listed it as Shadow Dispersing Clarity and it wasn’t till I got home and read the inserted addenda sheet that I saw it had been rechristened Constellation. Suddenly I had to re-evaluate the evening-length work given the connotations of its new title. Or did I? The word constellation brings memories of lying in the grass on a warm summer night while my mother pointed to the various groupings of stars and told us their names and the ancient myths connected with them.
Then again, a constellation is also any group of objects or people who have even the most tenuous relationship to each other. Apropos this ballet, it seems almost a cliché that Jim Campbell’s visual design employs hundreds of computer-controlled baseball-sized LED lights, either individually being plucked as if fruit from a tree, rolled across the floor and tossed from one dancer to another, or in large groups mounted on the backdrop or strung together and manipulated by the dancers. For that reason I prefer the original title – Shadow Dispersing Clarity – because it implies nearly the opposite meaning. Perhaps what is happening on stage is not what you think and more is at play beneath the surface. Even in a constellation two stars can appear close to each other in the sky, but one may be only five light years away and the other is actually a galaxy hundreds of light years distant. I found the lights on stage a distraction from the dancing, an unnecessary gimmick that other less sophisticated forms of entertainment use much more adroitly.
It seems that a fair number of the performances I’ve seen lately use collages of music and sound in various styles and from assorted periods from baroque to rap, both instrumental and vocal. While the novelty can be refreshing, it often comes at the expense of cohesion and coherence. Constellation is accompanied by one such sonically eclectic stew. Most of it is unremarkable; however, performing live, mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani and Hadley McCarroll at the piano glow iridescently in their rendering of pieces of Handel, Vivaldi and Richard Strauss, imbuing them with exquisite feeling. They certainly don’t need any of the amplification in a space as small as the Lam Research Theater, and, In fact, filtering them through the speakers actually takes away the most important element of live performance: direct intimate contact unmediated by technology.
The other wonderful element is the dancers. Through the years the dancers who join the company are more and more technically proficient. but less and less emotionally engaging. I notice that it takes about two seasons working with King before his style is fully absorbed into the dancer’s body. Of course there have been exceptions, but that speaks to the sheer complexity of the movement and why it demands so much time before the dancers can let it be second nature to them. Meredith Webster has long been a favorite of mine and can fill a simple walk or wrap an arm around herself with more breadth of expression than a Russian novel. Caroline Rocher has grown so much in the five years since she joined the company that I hardly recognise her now with her way of embracing a movement, shaping it and casting it out for us to marvel at. Seeing him stretch his limbs beyond the physical realm, Keelan Whitmore often reminds me of the how the founding Alvin Ailey dancers could convey a long history of both intense suffering and redeeming joy. He moves as if his life depends on it. Someone who has embodied King’s choreographic essence thoroughly in a few short years is Michael Montgomery. Everything he does feels completely natural, utterly effortless, like a child running freely, exploring his surroundings and his body without self-consciousness. The high point of the evening is a superb pas de deux for Webster and David Harvey where anything that came before or might come after is superfluous – only those exquisite minutes matter.
This fall season celebrates the 30th anniversary of the founding of the company, but I didn’t need to read the press releases in the months leading up to it to remind me. I always know exactly to the day how old this contemporary dance troupe is because the inaugural season was just days before my son’s birth. My due date was the day of the dress rehearsal and one of the dancers was, and still is, a close friend and at the time my labour coach. I was helping backstage with costumes and whatever else needed a hand, but we both were praying that the impeding arrival of progeny would wait at least five more days until the run ended. I mention this because there are a lot of parallels in watching my son grow into a man and seeing this company develop from an ad hoc group of volunteer dancers into a full-fledged, internationally-acclaimed institution. Not an easy task, either one, but the satisfaction in the result is definitely worth all the enormous effort and years of struggle. The core of the aesthetic, both in the visual designs and costumes by Robert Rosenwasser and in King’s choreography speaking in his own voice of complex and convoluted movement, was present from the very beginning and has managed to remain secure and develop as the company matured.