SAN FRANCISCO, LAM THEATRE, OCTOBER 25, 2012: George Balanchine wanted his dancers to let him do all the thinking. Their job was to dance the musically challenging choreography of his imprimatur based on what it was not: classical. Audiences embraced Mr. B’s seditious brinksmanship, even though sedition was an overused term in the 1950s and 60s. Still, a hyper-extended leg or back, and a heel that only grazed the floor offered a delicious taste of subversion in a political and social atmosphere that blanched at the stillborn conservatism of McCarthyism. Balanchine’s collaborations with musicians shot a fresh breeze of neo-classical ballet through the newly constructed Lincoln Center, and the dancer’s job was to mirror Balanchine’s enthusiasm for the music and the creative process that rose in him like sap. Like Balanchine, Alonzo King finds his depth in the music; unlike Balanchine, King’s dancers are not the objects of his ministrations. They are the subjects. He wants them to think, question, challenge, and find the contradictions of dancing what’s inside as well as dancing against it. Constellation is in two acts containing a total of 13 movements. I will review some of them here, though not in the order in which they occurred.
In Constellation, the abundance of wishes that King imports arrives onstage as an embarrassment of riches, with moments that suggest a crise de nerfs, where all that is sentient in the dancer, the collaborator, the musician and the choreographer experiences a momentary overload. It does not worry those of us who are dyed-in-the-lycra King devotees. We know that King’s oeuvre is organic. Yes, the pieces he makes with musicians and dancers from around the world are discreet entities, but the energy that fires his collaborations issues from that organic material: it moves from one to the next, and there will always be an enriched and enriching nugget to take away from an evening’s offering.
Constellation opens with green light ceiling implants and a backdrop of the same lights. Mezzo-Soprano Maya Lahyani enters wearing a lush and somewhat overbuilt ruffled brick-red satin dress. Dancer Meredith Webster enters from the opposite wing, lengthening her legs into extensions. She reaches for a light and plucks it from above. Another dancer enters with swinging legs, turning, crawling and rolling to the spot where Lahyani is moaning a lament from Ricard Strauss’s Ach Lieb. David Harvey arrives, a light in each hand, arms raised, and (a mere three nights before the San Francisco Giants win the World Series), he is winding up for the pitch. The lights are the set, and represent a collaboration with Potrero Hill Electronic Artist, Jim Campbell. Campbell has a B.S. in Mathematics and Engineering from MIT, and has shown his work at the Whitney, SF MOMA and Harvard’s Carpenter Center. Here, his design is the pivotal element: Strings of LED lights take the form of square panels, and dancers wear or carry them like accessories. They bounce individual lights, or dance on a darkened stage with only the lights they hold in their hands visible as they move, so that their sparkle competes with feet as focal points.
Michael Montgomery is a bolt of lightning against the green and blue globes. He rolls through his moves, and then Webster, now in knickers-length black pants, enters. Ricardo Zayas joins them. In serpentine probes that are the prelude to locking an impossible pose, they marshal a strength and confidence where every muscle is stilled, but a foot shakes and the message is: “This shaking foot is both mine and part of the archive. I resist my fingers as if they are on fire. Thought it was about that turn? No! It is about this lunge that the turn sends me into.”
The third movement ushers in Keelan Whitmore. He is possessed of a LINES-iconic power quotient, and brings to the contemporary stage the kind of poetic ramp-up that Carlos Acosta has brought to classical ballet. The grid suspended behind Whitmore, Montgomery and Zachary Tang, is composed of blue lights on black. In perhaps the most compelling segment of this work, all three dance to a whoosh sound that slides over and back across a musical range. A dancer who has accompanied me on this evening comments that this could be even stronger if the dancers themselves were vocalizing the whoosh sounds. The lights brighten and the men dance as if they were large birds perched on a precipice. They approach and retreat, turning and spiraling until they roll away. Four women in grey velour skirts dance steps whose accents are down but where legs and arms go long, so that they seem to splay over the hollowed metal electronica score.
After intermission Yujin Kim opens Act II. She is holding lights and rotating her arms, so that the lights trace the circling patterns that begin at her shoulders. Caldwell’s LED grid is fully onstage as the set. It is in 1950s juke box colors that burnish into garish orange chromatics that recall the single seedy bar in what are euphemistically referred to today as “sketchy” neighborhoods, the lone neon beacon of faked warmth in a cold world where danger lurks. Kim, in a modified feather tutu, sets a light globe spinning. Montgomery scrutinizes the vibe and moonwalks his arms alongside the lights. The stage is now lit from above. The grid goes mobile, wavering like a banner in the wind as its lights change colors. A male dancer manipulates a smaller swatch of lights. He is wearing matte metallic pants. The pant legs are horizontally layered cylinders. Using tennis ball-sized lights variously as goggles, bocce balls, or baseballs, an all-boys, all-balls game takes shape. Splattering steel drum arpeggios accompany the men. They set themselves spinning in all directions, striking poses and rolling out the lights, their glowing props strung across a diagonal like footlights. Women and men now grab a pair and the stage becomes a carnival, dancers moving lights through space to sound. For some, the medium eclipses the message, and because it is electrified, sorts itself into the cheap-thrills pile of gimmicks.
Montgomery becomes a Christopher Bruce–derivative rooster who struts with his back to the audience. Another dancer is moving downstage with lights in his mouth. Webster is elegant, fully in charge of her lights. A dancer enters with a boa of lights. She drapes them over her shoulders, as would a stripper. The company engages, tethered by strings of LEDs. We see extraordinarily energetic work by Courtney Henry, Ashley Jackson, and Paul Knobloch, as the swath of lights floats to a ceiling where lights are blue. Henry is covered in lights and fashions them into a square.
A line of dancers enters bearing small screens of white stadium lights. They turn them upside down overhead as roof cover for Carolyn Rocher. She moves low across floor and raises herself in front of them, her legs imaged on the light screens.
As enormous puffs of dry ice fill the upstage area, dancers come forward to form a semicircle around Henry. After breaking into mini-solos, they exit, leaving Rocher. The original grid returns to center stage and the smaller swath moves so that it is superimposed on the upper left-hand corner, forming what looks like an electronic U.S. flag. Lahyani and Whitmore seem to pull strands of lights out of the flag as they enter and circle each other. Whitmore does flexed-footed hops, his back undulating. Montgomery and David Harvey dance a duet. With rubbery spines, they drop and rise, trading lifts as Whitmore works his spectacular body separately, sweeping the floor with his tree trunk-like legs. The push is unrelenting, and at a certain point you are thirsty for a relevé that rolls through the foot, or an extension that unfolds. There is a seamless resolution into pendulum movement, and the four stretch across the breadth of the flag backdrop, and exit.
Webster and Harvey dance an expansive pas de deux in which extensions jut back and forth as a piano trills. After the extravagance of the lights, rough-hewn simplicity is welcome refreshment. It feels as if the stretches and inclinations themselves release the notes in the privacy and quiet of a not-blazoned display.
A loud crackle of interference, and Rocher and Whitmore reappear. Renewed whooshing sends Whitmore into á la seconde turns. The music moves from whoosh to Afro-Percussive, and the dancers become the drums.
Rocher, as a bird, is backed up by replicant birds flying across the screen of lights. We’re caught in a storm of light, sound and movement. Henry returns in swirls of butter yellow tulle, to which she offers the riposte of spitfire attack. Tall and lovely and reminiscent of the former Kathryn Dunham dancer, Trina Frazier Parks, Henry circles long legs around herself, a preparation for taking luxuriant, yet flexible and commanding strides. To sacred music, Montgomery and Knobloch dance a pastorale legato etude, testing one-footed balances.
A white scrim covers the grid. Lahyani returns. Two men in black knickers join her, more animal than human. A man in long pants wrestles with one of the animal men who has been wrestling with himself. Lights flicker above the fray. Metallic clanking returns.
When displeased by a choreographer’s steps, there are New York-based critics who instead of saying “I didn’t like these steps,” pose the question, “This may be movement and theater, but is it dancing?” The works of Jorma Elo and Alonzo King are frequent targets for this brand of query. In this reviewer’s opinion, Ashley Jackson is the best dancer of King’s work and Melissa Hough the best dancer of Elo’s work to put this idle worry to rest. Both dancers ignite like rockets, hitting their stride with spot-on precision.
There are dripping sounds. Two men lift and struggle. Five dancers array themselves as if they were baseball players. A violin sounds. Each breaks out of his or her place into dance movement.
Two men and Webster join Lahyani. Shadows stream across the screen as Yujin Kim enters wearing an elegant calligraphic-print costume. She begins a series of sweeping gestures, catching a light and sending it across the stage to Rocher. There is a first approach, a second and then a pileup of Kim and a partner. The bodies reverberate with the sound that Lahyani sends across to them. Out of the pileup, a standing level pas de deux matures. They reach high, break apart and she drops and redeems herself with a grasp of support that is there for her until she can once again be an equal partner. Then they circle one another. There is no time to rest or stop in this full-out surge from a leading edge and wedge of a company on the express track to immortality. Alonzo King is living the title role of one of his best-known pieces, Scheherazade. Mine is a plea to let him finish telling his thousand stories.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.