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Flash Review, 4-14: The Rite of King
Lines Director Makes a Sacrifice, and a Ballet for the Ailey

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Seeing Alonzo King's "Heart Song" performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on March 9 at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall confirmed my hunch about the symbiotic relationship that is created when King works with companies not his own. I had noticed it before when he set new work on Oakland Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Perhaps being out of his routine and working with new dancers stimulated him and opened up new choreographic avenues. At the same time, the dancers in these companies were inspired in return and gave performances that I had no idea they were capable of. Truly a "best of both worlds" situation.

King created "Heart Song" to Moroccan music composed by Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Yassir Chadley, and Hafida Ghanim. I am immediately drawn into the music. It is arresting both in its impassioned performance (unfortunately pre-recorded instead of live) and in the complexity and balance between the voice and instruments. I could simply close my eyes and let it carry me away. The dancing is equally engaging, with King's characteristic inventiveness and the dancers' fluid execution, yet somehow the two don't quite fit together. The music has a deeply reverential feeling that is not always reflected in the choreography.

I have long lamented AAADT's gradual loss of raw soul over the 36 years I have been watching the company. As the original dancers left or retired, each succeeding generation, especially after Ailey's death, had a less developed skill in communicating the spiritual essence of his work. While the level of technical accomplishment has risen stratospherically, the ability for emotional expressiveness has diminished proportionally. For the first time in a long while, in King's choreography, these dancers are suddenly awakened and reveal newly-discovered ways of moving.

When I first heard that King would be presenting his own version of "The Rite of Spring" for his own Lines Ballet's spring season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco, I wondered what was behind the decision. The Stravinsky music alone is monumental, not to mention the historical importance of Nijinsky's original 1913 "Le Sacre du Printemps" choreography to it, or the subsequent versions by dozens of choreographers, both well known and obscure. At least 24 have been created since 2000, according to the Roehampton University of Surrey's Stephanie Jordan and Larraine Nicholas, who have compiled a data base of dances set to Stravinsky.That means a lot of choreographers appear to be driven to perform some rite of passage by tackling this music.

Of the four versions I had seen previously, the Nijinsky re-construction by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, and those created by Maurice Bejart, John Neumeier and Angelin Preljocaj, I still find Nijinsky's the most impressive and visceral. The Bejart and Neumeier, with their stripped down unitard costuming and even a naked Chosen One in Neumeier's, were well-structured and clearly spoke in the respective choreographer's voice. Preljocaj gave it a more contemporary look by using appropriate sets and costumes, but remained true to the story of the sacrifice.

Based on the opening night performance, on Friday, April 9, King's ballet is less clearly delineated in terms of following the traditional synopsis of the action. Or rather, he attempts to tell, more or less, the traditional story -- if the titles of the different sections as listed in the program are any indication -- but his intentions are not borne out.

"Rite" begins well with an expressive solo danced by Laurel Keen, followed by dancing for a group of young girls. In 'Spring Rounds,' for the full company, augmented by guest dancers and students from the Lines Ballet School and the School of the Arts, we get unleashed power. Unfortunately, the whole group cannot maintain moving in unison for very long. One young man on the far edge of the group even keeps looking behind himself to see what the others are doing.

The narrative line begins to blur with 'Ritual of Rival Tribes,' as it is not clear whether these are really rivals or members of the same tribe pretending to be enemies for the ritual. Since it appears more that they are true rivals it detracts from the thread that is leading through to the end. 'Procession of the Sage' and a solo for the Sage, danced by Maurya Kerr with a primitive regality, effectively show Kerr to be the one who is looked to for guidance and the one who is respected and honored. The next few sections are fine until 'Glorification of the Chosen One.'

Tanya Wideman-Davis is in the center of the stage inside a tight circle of half a dozen dancers. I know that, according to the program, Corinne Larsen Haas is the Chosen One, so why isn't she in the circle? No cast change has been announced. I realize I have missed how the Chosen One is selected when I see Haas standing alone on stage. In the final sacrificial dance, Haas spends a lot of time barely doing anything, even as the music demands that she dance herself past human endurance.

Despite these shortcomings, there are some very exciting moments and King has utilized the space of the stage to much better advantage than he usually does; lines curve around to fill in the corners and circles, sweeping up dancers and carrying them onward.

Also on the program is "The Patience of Aridity, Waiting for Petrichor," another aptly named ballet, but it only becomes apparent after a trip to the dictionary. Petrichor is the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. The first twelve sections are mostly duets and solos to music by Miguel Frasconi. The simple haunting cello melody is quite moving at first, but gradually the sameness, like water on stone, wears on my patience. In the opening pas de deux, John Michael Schert partners a very expressive Kerr, who shifts rapidly between tenderness toward Schert and pushing him away. Brett Conway also stands out in his solo. The thirteenth and last section, a pas de deux to an excerpt from Edgar Meyer's "Violin Concerto," danced by Keen and Schert, stands in complete opposition to the opening one. The steps are far more classical and there is greater harmony between the two dancers. Martin Gagnon's lighting is exquisite for this piece and all the other ones on the program.

The pas de deux "Coleman Hawkins" is inspired by the great tenor saxophonist. With such jazzy music Chiharu Shibata and Prince Credell should turn up the thermostat and let us share in the ensuing sauna.

"Baker Fix" is a bubbly, witty and sexy piece to three songs sung by Josephine Baker. Dressed in a fringed red gown by Colleen Quen Couture, Kerr sashays and struts her way across stage in 'Haiti.' To an excerpt from 'Toc Toc Partout,' Lauren Porter Worth triggers me into a false memory syndrome episode where I imagine I am seeing what Miss Baker actually looked like. A feathery concoction with ropes of pearls by Robert Rosenwasser confirms the illusion. Worth spins out a mix of Charleston and King's own intricate steps with a toss of her head and a sly smile. Kerr comes back to 'J'attends Votre Retour' in a bouffant dress, black background splashed with colorful butterflies. Before long a lone pearly white two-foot-in-diameter ball rolls out from the wings. She holds it, perches on top of it, kicks and throws it until suddenly the whole stage is filled with balls of various sizes and pale iridescent colors.

After reading up a bit on Baker, I am amazed to learn she was more than just an entertainer, but was involved with the French Resistance during World War II and later was an activist for civil rights. Someone of her stature warrants a much longer homage, maybe even an evening-length ballet to pay tribute to all her many facets.

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