April 24, 2002


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Double trouble
Lines Ballet turns the pas de deux into a battle.

By Rita Felciano

COME OCTOBER, Alonzo King's Lines Ballet will celebrate its 20th anniversary, and something seems to be happening to the company's pulsating dances, whose broken lines, extreme extensions, and precarious balances never really threatened their underlying equanimity. Regardless of the force applied to them, King's past dances, like gyroscopes, always returned to stability. No longer. Money may be plentiful – Lines' music, costumes, and lighting design are spectacular these days, and the dancers, particularly the men, almost virtuoso – but a sense of unease has crept into some of King's work. Serenity, apparently, is no longer so easy to achieve. It may have nothing to do with the pressures attached to the success and acclaim the company currently enjoys; it may be that the times are changing. This shift of emphasis shows that King is willing to explore ideas about loss of harmony. In the past, harmony has been indispensable to him.

Some of this disquiet was already evident in 1997's Etta James-inspired Suite Etta, where humor – unusual for King – rose above an underground swell of darkness. It emerged again in the pas de deux of last year's gorgeously appointed The Heart's Natural Inclination. And it burst into bloody bloom with the pas de deux in Koto. Both The Heart's Natural Inclination and Koto were featured in the April 19 premiere of Lines' spring season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.

The pas de deux is ballet's most traditional way of portraying one-to-one relationships, often romantic ones between a man and woman. King has resisted that easy categorization throughout his career, insisting that the pas de deux can portray the underlying union of opposites. In two recent ones – both starring Christian Burns – however, he took a less than sanguine look at equilibrium.

Audiences got a hint of what King was up to in Heart's opening section. Maurya Kerr and Arthur Sultanov, exquisite in their self-absorption – she spindly, he highly articulated – slowly made their way toward each other, only to have a furylike Lauren Porter slice them apart. After two ensemble numbers, which could be read as interludes in good balletic fashion – one for the men on the tip of their toes, and a jagged, broken one for the women – came the central pas de deux. Burns hugged himself tightly until Chiharu Shibata violently forced herself onto Burns's body after a failed attempt by another dancer. In the ensuing duet, their bodies began to interlock, their skins seemed glued together, and they melded into a many-limbed nightmare monster that disappeared into the darkness.

In Koto that nightmare screamed. To call the duet between Sultanov and Burns a pas de deux is more than a little ironic. It showed the slight Burns – hunched over and close to the ground – trying to make his way across the stage while Sultanov, in white pants, attempted to beat him to death with a stick. There was no attempt to beautify the brutality. At the end, in what seemed like a political analogy, Sultanov was felled and Burns vainly tried to raise him. I am not sure whether that coup de théâtre ultimately worked, but it certainly showed King willing to step away from a lofty position of detachment.

Although Koto stepped into new dramatic territory, choreographically it broke little ground. King has become quite adept at using ensemble unisons, but that was not a major piece. There was something slightly facile about the loveliness of the skirted dancers. Koto's strong point was Miya Masaoka's astounding score. Amplifying her playing and – in the women's quartet – adding something akin to scat singing, she created such sonorous and all-encompassing luminosity that it was easy to resent the squeaking of the dancers' feet on the marley floor. Bending over the koto, barely visible in the darkness upstage left, she produced an environment that ebbed and flowed like the sea, changing color and rhythmic intensity with an ease and fluidity that King's choreography couldn't match. Significantly, she disappeared from view during the disturbing Sultanov-Burns duet.

King may have his dark moments, but he also wants to entertain. Set to a score that collaged Nino Rota, Francis Poulenc, and Leslie Stuck, the new Splash was an amusing commedia-flavored pas de deux for former Lines dancer Melanie Henderson and guest artist Travis Birch. Alonzo King's Lines Ballet performs through Sun/28. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard, S.F. $20-$35. (415) 978-ARTS.