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LINES Contemporary Ballet

20th Anniversary Home Season Opener

by Mary Ellen Hunt

October 6, 2002 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Opinions about Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet may always be polarized. If you are a devotee, then artistic director King is a visionary, creating works of affecting spirituality and choreographic power. If you’re a detractor, King’s ballets are twitchy, derivative, and unnecessarily “California woo-woo.” As with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in between.

One way or another, Lines Ballet has been around for twenty years, and as the company’s opening of their 20th Anniversary Home Season demonstrated, the one indubitable fact is that the dancers are terrific. Accompanied on their two week run at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center by jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, as well as an impressively diverse coterie of musicians, and guest dancers Rasta Thomas and La Tania, Lines Ballet offers a programmatically mixed, thematically mixed, and just mixed-up evening.

Nevertheless, there are moments of grace threaded throughout the program, which is left largely undescribed in the playbill notes, except for generic titles such as “Pas de Deux,” “Solo,” or “Trio.” Long-time Lines watchers will recognize certain sections of choreography, notably from “Ocean,” King’s 1994 collaboration with Sanders, although the evening interweaves old pieces with new work, cobbling everything together in one continuous opus with varying levels of success.

Overall the evening seems to have no greater conceptual string to tie it together than that it is a tribute to the works Lines has performed over the years, a sort of unstated “best-of.” And as always, the live accompaniment adds an indispensable electric spark to the performance, to which the dancers respond with a fresh energy; none more so than the newest members: Drew Jacoby, Brett Conway, Prince Credell, Laurel Keen and Tanya Wideman-Davis.

A brief solo for Davis, who danced previously with Dance Theatre of Harlem, opens the evening revealing a compact, fiery performer, in some ways, more like the male dancers of the company, who tend to exude more passion than their detached, occasionally icy female counterparts. The youthful Jacoby, on the other hand, is much more in the mold of the leggy, secure women of Lines’s past. An almost instinctive dancer, her pas de deux with Artur Sultanov is distant, and coolly technical.

At the other end of the ballet, figuratively and literally, the soigné Maurya Kerr and Conway manifest a much warmer and human encounter, mirroring the Jacoby-Sultanov couple. If the first duet is one of King’s more conventional concoctions, the last pas de deux, with simple embraces that develop as Conway swoons into Kerr’s arms, contains images that are all the more appealing for being unexpected. Their duet comes at the end of four trios, three pas de deux, and four solos and a number of group bits in between. After so much dancing that is by turns controlled and fulminate, the simplicity is a relief.

King is at his best in the simple quiet moments as when dancers are seen ghost-like behind sheets of sheer gold lame or swaying together dreamily like seaweed. He gives the magnetic Kerr a mesmerizing solo, which she phrases so dynamically that one can’t look away for fear that a nuance, will be missed. In fact, the whole company dances at such a high level that it is difficult to pick out even the immensely talented guest artist, Thomas, who seamlessly and graciously melds himself into the company style. The solos created for him are nothing out of the ordinary for King’s choreography, although Thomas’s clean execution makes them a pleasure to watch.

Midway through this whole operation though, one can’t help but wonder what exactly is the connection between all these parts? The music is eclectically, yet seductively arranged, with traditional pieces by Bach and Hildegard van Bingen intertwined with commissioned work from Les Stuck, Miguel Frasconi, and Sanders. Any attempt at unifying the evening conceptually, however, is lost by the time that Spanish cantaor Jesus Montoya and flamenco dancer La Tania wander in, seemingly from another village, and then wander away again, not to be seen until the bows.

Perhaps it’s best not to think too much about it. There is arresting dancing to enjoy and some wonderful music punctuated by the moody perfection of Sanders’s playing and that can be enough.


This article was first published in October 2002 in the Contra Costa Times.

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