Dance Review: Alonzo King’s dancers toe the line at Jacob’s Pillow

Ilaria Guerra of Alonzo King LINES Ballet performs "Four Heart Testaments." Photo by Danica Paulos
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In the vocabulary of ballet, “line” refers to the shape dancers make with their bodies. The site balletHub defines it as “…a classical ballet term that describes the outline of a dancer’s complete body while performing steps or poses… When speaking generally about a dancer’s line, it is meant that you are speaking about the complete look, from toes to top of the head and everything in between. When speaking specifically about ‘the line of the foot,’ you are then speaking specifically about the connection and shape between multiple key points of placement for the toes, ankle, shape of the foot and its relation to the calf.”

Alonzo King, co-founder and artistic director of the eponymous Alonzo King LINES Ballet, certainly pays a lot of attention to his dancers’ lines. That’s immediately evident when watching any work he has choreographed. But these lines diverge from the lines of conventional classical ballet. While his dancers all perform with enviable grace and infinite extensions, there’s typically a quirky break in the line that seems to be a King trademark: a distinct flip of the wrist, a flexed foot, an unexpected yet pronounced bend in the torso, arms akimbo, a knee askew. These choreographic idiosyncrasies make for exciting, unpredictable dance.

Adji Cissoko in Four Heart Testaments. Photo by Danica Paulos.

Beyond the performers’ bodies, dance involves other types of lines, including the patterns and shapes the dancers make on the stage, and how they travel through space. King pays acute attention to these lines, too, grouping dancers across the stage from side to side, or front to back, or moving them along diagonals. Yet while the corporeal and spatial aspects of line stand out in his choreography, King seems to be getting at something deeper—more universal—with the name of his company. From his website:

“The term LINES alludes to all that is visible in the phenomenal world. There is nothing that is made or formed without a line. Straight and Circle encompass all that we see. Whatever can be seen is formed by a line. In mathematics it is a straight or curved continuous extent of length without breadth. Lines are in our fingerprints, the shapes of our bodies, constellations, geometry. It implies genealogical connection, progeny and spoken word. It marks the starting point and a finish. It addresses direction, communication, and design. A line of thought. A boundary or eternity. A melodic line. The equator. From vibration or dot to dot it is the visible organization of what we see.”

As audiences experienced during performances of Alonzo King LINES Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, August 3–7, it’s impossible to watch his dances and not think about line. His dancers are exacting, precise, graceful, and beautiful to watch. The company exemplifies diversity, flying in the face of what was until recently the homogeneity of major US and European ballet companies, which the ballet establishment declared was necessary for the presentation of the classical dance canon. So instead of Balanchine’s uniformly pale bunheads, LINES dancers—male and female-—literally let their hair down.

Based in San Francisco, LINES is currently marking its 40th anniversary. The company made its Pillow debut in 2000 and quickly became an audience favorite; in 2008, Alonzo King received the second Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, designed to recognize and support visionary artists. The company’s appearances in the Berkshires are eagerly anticipated.

The two-part Pillow program began with Four Heart Testaments, a selection of excerpts from four dances created from 2007 to 2020, beginning with the most recent, Grace, from Pie Jesu, in which the two female dancers—Adji Cissoko and Ilaria Guerra—strike many precarious, precise, off-kilter poses with nary a wobble, executed on pointe without toe shoes. Michael Montgomery enters, ponytail flying in the wake of his quicksilver movements. Defying expectations, there’s no partnering, no physical contact, among the dancers, but they do maintain eye contact, often coming into stillness to watch as another dancer moves. Their gaze focuses our gaze on the movement. This is another characteristic of King’s choreography.

Madeline DeVries performed the second section, Writing Ground, from Over My Head (2010)—also the name of the accompanying music, sung by Kathleen Battle— looking waiflike in a loose, flowing white dress, hair down and flowing, with looser, softer choreography than the preceding piece, sometimes seeming to be controlled, ragdoll-like, as if her movements were not her own. This airy solo was followed by an excerpt from 2008’s The Radius of Convergence with five male dancers. Danced to a bass and saxophone score by Edgar Meyer and Pharoah Sanders, there’s a shifting dynamic in both space and relationships in this section; the men form lines, create backdrops for a solo dance, sometimes moving in formation, falling in and out of unison, all punctuated as one dancer does a full-force jump into the others’ arms.

James Gowan in Four Heart Testaments. Photo by Danica Paulos

The final segment—an excerpt from King’s 2007 dance, Rasa—is propelled by Zakir Hussain’s engaging tabla rhythms, Kala Ramnath divine violin strains, and haunting vocals. This languorous segment again featured groups of dancers in stillness purposefully watching a dancer moving alone; at one point it seemed analogous to a jazz performance in which all the musicians take a solo turn, giving it everything they’ve got until it’s the next performer’s turn in the spotlight. The male dancers did give it their all in this section, with demanding, energetic, nonstop leaping, spinning, jumping in asymmetric movements; they left nothing on the table.

I honestly can’t pinpoint the common conceptual thread of the excerpts that comprise Four Heart Testaments, but the subtle yet striking design, featuring a dark stage with a textured backdrop of columns of light that shifted in color from burnt orange to purple, tied the disparate pieces together. It’s part of human nature to look for the narrative even in abstract works, especially when the title is evocative. Such was also the case with Azoth, a piece from 2019 that filled the second half of the program—though it was dense enough (and, lasting more than 45 minutes, long enough) to have been the sole piece of the evening.

Lorris Eichinger in Four Heart Testaments. Photo by Jamie Kraus

Azoth begins with a few striking elements: the curtains open to a dark stage with three dancers lying flat on the floor; going in and out of spotlight, they begin to move in silence, before piano music (by Jason Moran, with saxophonist Charles Lloyd) kicks in. The women wear gold leotards and the initial mover, Madeline DeVries, sports wing-like disks on her hips. There are some strange illuminations hovering, with shifting color patterns; gradually they reveal themselves to be light panels suspended from above (lighting design by Jim French, technology by Jim Campbell).

The program notes explain the title: “Azoth was believed to be the essential agent of transformation in alchemy. It is the name given by ancient alchemists to mercury, the animating spirit hidden in all matter that makes transmutation possible.” Throughout the ten parts of this piece, we do witness transformations, mostly literally in the costumes, which go back and forth from gold to dark blue, from pants to skirts or unitards, but also in tone. We get an onslaught of quartets, solos, duets, full-company sections, with some signature motifs—dancers picking up and placing one of their own feet, movement seemingly initiated by the arms, a man in crisis, lashing out and confronted—and then comforted—by the other dancers, and one part in which a group of dancers form a mini-stage on the stage on which a male dancer performs solo as those regarding make small seated movements in unison.

Michael Montgomery in Four Heart Testaments. Photo by Jamie Kraus

Often the music and movement come together in achingly beautiful ways, with graceful partnering and surprising weight transfers. There’s one segment in which the dancers illuminate each other on the darkened stage, holding smaller versions of those looming light panels, sometimes with swirling LED animation. Azoth contains a multitude of ideas and standout segments and moments; it could easily hold its own on its own as an evening-length performance—it merits that type of focus from the audience. King’s notes point out that the word Azoth goes from A to Z, linking Alpha and Omega, “the beginning and the end of all things.” So, too, this dance goes from A to Z in terms of choreography and mood. Kudos to these dancers for their precision, stamina, and grace in a long program of demanding, and rewarding, dance.


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