Do you remember those old-school glass thermometers – the ones that had a tiny amount of mercury in them? Maybe you had one in your home or perhaps encountered them in a science lab. Today, they’ve been largely eliminated because of concern over the mercury. If one was to break, the substance’s toxicity poses real danger, and its clean up is difficult. Mercury rolls around and is hard to pick up (definitely seek professional assistance before attempting). It can merge into one dollop and then all of a sudden, separate into an array of tiny bubbles. It is elusive, hard to contain and unpredictable.
Now when a dance performance holds these properties, the result can be quite something. Unpredictability done right can add a sense of wonder, anticipation, and keep viewers on the edge of their seats. This was certainly the case this past week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as Alonzo King LINES Ballet presented their annual fall home season. A double-bill of compelling contemporary movement, the centerpiece of the performance was Azoth, a new collaboration between Artistic Director Alonzo King, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd and composer/pianist Jason Moran, who together accompanied the work live. According to the program, the ten-movement suite, danced by a cast of ten, looked to the element mercury for inspiration. And like mercury, from one second to the next, it was impossible to know what might be in store. Azoth was deliciously challenging to pin down.
Azoth’s opening chapter felt like the body awakening after a long slumber. Limbs stretched and neurons fired while ethereal arpeggiated chords sang from the orchestra pit. Calm and repose reigned supreme as the cast unhurriedly welcomed this new state of being. Once complete, the awake, alert body was free to take off in Azoth’s numerous directions. Subsequent chapters countered moments of quiet with full throttle physical sequences of big jumps and full port de bras. Shuaib Elhassan’s solo was undeniably reptilian with its winding arms, serpentine torso and swirling head. Pace and dynamics ping-ponged from frenetic to leisurely to still. Gesture made ample appearance, as did moments of purposely slowed-down depictions of violence.
Framing the ten movement episodes were three large movable light grids (lighting design by Jim French, image technology by Jim Campbell) that illuminated the action from above, from the side, at times, in close proximity, at others, from quite a distance. Morphing from yellow to red to purple, the grids indeed gave the scene a futuristic quality. And with technology being another entity in a constant state of flux, it was very fitting to the work. Throughout the piece, the cast changed costumes multiple times (design by Robert Rosenwasser), which again felt evocative of the shifting theme. Design-wise, most were pleasing enough, but the color palette was curious. So many different shades of gold and indigo, and many of the resulting combinations didn’t read well onstage. Typically, I find most dances that are close to fifty minutes in length to be too long. But here, because of the extensive variety, Azoth didn’t seem long at all. And King avoided the stops and starts that so often plague the suite form, and instead offered an unbroken stream of consciousness.
Also part of the fall program was King’s The Personal Element, an evocative twenty-minute octet that premiered over the summer at the Vail Dance Festival. Set to another sweeping piano score by Moran, Element allowed the viewer to marvel at its dance movement and choreography. Designs were appropriately uncomplicated – a bright cyclorama, elegant costuming – so the focus could remain on the movement, which of course included some signature LINES’ motifs. Jutting hips, superhuman extensions, high attitude positions and rolling ribcages peppered the stage, along with a striking image of a flexed foot right next to a foot en pointe. Predominantly a work of duets, the partnering was confident and secure with a few minor exceptions. And Ilaria Guerra’s series of balances as the work began absolutely stole the show – she almost seemed to levitate. While Element didn’t appear to be following any particular narrative, it was most assuredly charged and fueled by dramatic emotions. But as to which one or ones, I couldn’t really tell. Passion or yearning? Was the dance a journey of discovery or internal self-reflection? Was it a search for healing? But then I came back to the title, and wondered if it was in fact, a poetic invitation, encouraging each individual viewer to make their own personal connection with the piece. And for me, I was more pulled to the gorgeous physical shapes and choreographic phrases and less to Element’s emotional tones and moods.