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LINES Contemporary Ballet

'The Heart's Natural Inclination,' 'Koto,' 'Splash'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

April 2002 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

LINES Contemporary Ballet’s newest work, “Koto”, to the music of Miya Masaoka, is certainly one of the company’s best efforts in recent years. Choreographer and artistic director Alonzo King has fallen lately into a kind of habitual approach to his works, but while “Koto” exhibits a few of his formulaic characteristics, it also transcends them with fascinating imagery, tight musicality, and above all, concision.

Like many other King ballets, including “The Heart’s Natural Inclination”, which opens the program, “Koto” has a few of the usual elements that King’s ballets almost always feature: a trio for the leggiest of the dancers, (highlighting the exceptional Maurya Kerr), a virtuousic solo for Xavier Ferla, a partnered section for Chiharu Shibata. However, where “The Heart’s Natural Inclination” wanders with unfocused intentions, “Koto” excites interest by making the audience wonder what will happen next and what it all means.

The work begins with the full company onstage executing King’s idiosyncratic movements, in which the push and pull of the steps seem to originate from unexpected places in the body (an elbow, a knee, a shoulder). This propulsive style can be thrilling at first, but often quickly wears out its welcome, especially if it is not anchored in a context. In “The Heart’s Natural Inclination”, for instance, there is no clear emotionalism, no story to be told, nor is there a lucid visualization of the music to draw the audience into the performance. By contrast, Masaoka’s measured score gave “Koto” the outlines and pacing that it needed to remain compelling as well as unanticipated. There is even an unexpected use of emotion in a peculiar episode in which three men cross the stage doubling over in contractions that evoke hilarious laughter as Greg Dawson creeps behind them and Ferla watches from a distance. Ferla’s explosive solos are cut short by Dawson, and the opening culminates with Ferla climbing up across the backs of the others. The dreamlike episode is mysterious and unexplained, but nevertheless visually and emotionally striking.

A quartet of women that follows not only demonstrates some of the best aspects of King’s style, but also displays designer Colleen Quen’s beautifully executed costumes. The airy dresses for the women sport an architectural wiring in the hem, which gives the curves a shape and also lends the costumes their own echo to the dancer’s movements, creating a truly unusual and eye-catching effect. Kerr, Shibata, Lauren Porter, and Corinne Larsen seem propelled and inspired by Masaoka’s music and in particular Kerr’s mobile articulation gives her the unearthly quality of an exotic bird.

The only section that seems out of place with the rest of the ballet is the strange pas de deux in which Artur Sultanov attacks a passive Christian Burns repeatedly with a stick. The obvious question is, why does Sultanov beat Burns, and what does this have to do with the rest of the ballet? There are no obvious answers and ultimately the duet is both too painfully literal and too cryptic. The dance for Shibata and the men, however, returns us to the meditative mood established earlier. Her air of complete assurance and firm grasp of the musical dynamics gives the choreography a sexy edge that never veered out of her control.

As always, King is to be commended for his unusual explorations with modern composers and artists. He almost certainly recognizes how much the process of creating with live music elevates the level of his company and nearly every work that LINES presents with live accompaniment is far more successful than those presented with taped music. “Koto” is no exception. Masaoka is on the stage herself, sitting before her koto behind a scrim and keeping a watchful eye on the dancers, which allows them to respond comfortably to her playing. Once again, the collaboration enlarges both the dancing and the music.

In addition to “Koto” and “The Heart’s Natural Inclination”, LINES also premiered “Splash”, a duet featuring former company member Melanie Henderson and Travis Birch, both of whom dance for Alberta Ballet. Although it has a few promising moments, this piece looks self-conscious and under-rehearsed, but will likely improve during the run.

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