The Alonzo King LINES Ballet begins as abruptly as it ends. The stage curtain at the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland lifts and a company of ten dancers is thrust into movement by the opening jolting chords of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto For Two Violins. The show seems to start in the middle of something, and there is a need to get caught up.
Against a black backdrop, the dancers’ bodies create and trace quick lines in both elegant and frenetic curves and strokes. The tempo here is lively and fast. There is urgency to the individual and collective motion on stage. It hits me instantly, like experiencing an adrenaline rush second-hand sitting still in my seat.
The pace and moves don’t match the ideas of ballet I have stored in my mind from watching ballerinas and “The Nutcracker” as a little girl on television. LINES, presented by White Bird Dance, is my first ballet and I was assured by my companions to Friday night’s show (who have seen a fair share of ballet) that LINES wouldn’t resemble classical ballet. Choreographer Alonzo King gives the form new shapes and altered rhythms. The fundamental techniques of ballet are exhibited and highlighted, but embedded in the performance is the renewed energy of contemporary styles and moves–full body rolls and popping meet plies and arabesques–making the show feel like a vital expression of moving history.
The intricate steps and sheer allure of the dancers’ illuminated figures settles me in a thoughtless trance. I let my eyes follow the lines hypnotically. At some point, I’m not clear when, the interplay on stage feels tense and a narrative starts to emerge–a bodily language begins to recount the struggle between old and new, lost and found, letting go and moving on. This is especially evident in many of the night’s visceral duets. Occurring both in the spotlight and in the background as solo dancers occupy the foreground, the duets’ dance imitates the most fluid grappling. The partners reach for each other, fall over and lean on one another. There is resistance while one dancer pleads for the other to return to their feet. Once one rises, the other dancer falls, and they continue like this, shifting between roles of strong and weak, savior and rescued. They are not fighting each other; they are clashing with something larger and they look to overcome whatever it is together.
It is truly mesmerizing to watch this play out. Nothing seems rehearsed; it appears automatic as if improvised. The moves are without fine edges, without definitive clarity and watching how the dancers respond to one another, coaxing and trying to support the other as he or she gracefully crumbles, puts on display human flaws so precise in their naturalness. It makes me rethink the way we all try to communicate and understand one another, from our most sophisticated attempts to the clumsy, beyond practice means of our most desperate ones.
I begin to see the company as a tribe, the last and most resilient people left on earth, and that their struggle lies in the rebuilding of life in a world returned to its original state, where the structures of modernity have been wiped away. After intermission the backdrop changes from all black to an image resembling thick tree trunks made of entwined rubber. The stage feels like a forest. The music of the second half is no longer the clean chords of Bach, but a spread of compositions featuring the earthy-sounding tones of flutes and strings, and chants furthering the vibe of a wild and primitive landscape. The lighting at times illuminates the stage from the sides like the burning light of a setting sun. There is a wide spotlight in one set during which most of the company is present. But it does not follow the dancers; rather, they seek it out. They move toward it in a group as if they are trying to locate the warmth and the light–the semblance of something they recognize–to continue.
In another set, the light moves across the top and sends down rays like sun moving quickly above and through trees. It also reminds me of the way light shines through floorboards, to people trapped or hiding underneath. This illusion gave me the sense that in some way, the dancers are trapped and this kept that feeling of urgency, planted at the beginning, mounting.
It is not quite that they are trapped in any literal sense but that they are trying to break through all kinds of barriers. The sets in which the company’s five male dancers share the stage, there is a beautiful unity and athleticism on display which is determined to set the tribe on a brave, hopeful path. Four of the men occupy the back of the stage, connecting in one line, often pulling on each others’ arms to propel them forward, while the fifth moves at the forefront, steering the course and assuming the role of leader.
The last performance features four male dancers and one woman who appears in great distress. She is frenzied and surrounded by them at all times, either at her side or hoisting her up and guiding her through mid-air dips and dives that are impressive and hard to track. The men are deeply concerned about her as she falls to the ground and laughs hysterically to herself, indifferent to their serious expressions. I don’t know what is happening here but I worry that whatever obstacles the tribe faces, they are suddenly worried for her survival but unwilling to leave her behind.
The dramatic storyline aside, it is simply cool to watch classically trained dancers move to King’s choreography. Beauty, physical strength, and agility bring poise and grace to both the aggressive and lovely maneuvers. I get the feeling too that in King’s process, he reaches a point where his work is done and he can confidently rely on his dancers to tell the rest of the story and accurately express his vision.
The term Lines “alludes to all that is visible in the phenomenal world,” says King. It “marks the starting point and finish. It addresses direction, communication, and design. A boundary or eternity.” Lines of muscle, at rest and in motion, and even the lines created by the spray of sweat glistening in the stage lighting, strip the dance of a certain inaccessible complexity and bring it back to a humility we all share as human beings. Whatever struggle it is I sense embodied in LINES is something I feel we can all connect to.
As I write this, I realize I barely touch on the dance itself. The skill was excellent. The imagery was stunning at times–the radiant nude shades of a lone dancer with dark curly hair pausing on stage to look out at us made me momentarily forget where I was. But overall, what is resonating with me mostly transcends these details. It is the invisible lines that were cast out to the audience, connecting us to an experience unattainable through words, transmitted solely by the unspoken expression of our bodies.
Just like the show seemed to start in the middle of the story, it doesn’t really end in any resolute way. It tells a story within a story, occupying a segment of a line that spans great distances in both directions of past and future. Or so one hopes for such continuity–that we will all keep chasing and finding the sun, and be able to move on to new worlds, without leaving what we love behind.