Alonzo King’s “Sand” premiered in this program. It’s redundant to speak of breakthroughs when it comes to King’s choreography. With each new season and collaboration, there’s an epiphany and the refinements that make it sing its name. It usually originates in a musical treasure that King has uncovered, and longs to get inside of. The resulting intimacy deepens onstage relations, as well as with audience devotees, which is not to say that the audience is clubby. Just the opposite: of late, there are more new faces than familiar ones. At this evening’s performance, a group identified as the UCSF Women’s HIV Program, streams a reality into the Novellus audience that goes missing at other ballet venues.
The jazz greats who lend their immense talents to “Sand” are Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran. Lloyd was a student of Mabel Robinson at her ballet school in Memphis, but says that the minute he laid eyes on a saxophone, that instrument became his voice. In this score, he, and Moran on piano, self-propelled by his investigations of Thelonious Monk, leave generous open spaces for King to work with. In the program notes, King, who, in the realm of ideas tends to leave no stone unturned, gives his consideration to the elemental properties of sand, what it’s made of, what it can withstand, what powerful mechanisms a single grain of it can disturb, how the force of gravity or the tides act upon it, what shapes it can take, what it can polish or smooth, and what it symbolizes for us, mere grains of it in the passage of time.
In white tunics and dresses for the women, white or black leggings for the men, with numerous costume changes throughout the work, the dancers reflect the squint-inducing “bleach” of Axel Morganthaler’s lighting, going forth as staunch pilgrims intent on finding their footings in a strange medium. Lloyd’s desultory solo plays them in. They move in patterns like waves breaching. It is hard to single out individual dancers for praise, as we are looking at a company where the ensemble carries the day. Even the youngest and newest of dancers looks seasoned, and yet open to anything, including dancing to a single note north of High C, struck again and again and again, until at last the score is suffused with orchestration a-plenty.
The evening began with King’s “Shostakovich,” which premiered in 2014. Strings drive an allegro intro where Rosenwasser’s palette of one-off hue’d costumes are set skimming before a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling glistening silver elastics. The women are mobile works of art: In mauve, Adji Cissoko, sparkles in her own silence like a sleighbell; In chestnut, Courtney Henry slices through the thick atmosphere like a scythe, YuJin Kim, lengthens her torso into a burning torch, Kara Wilkes moves with the magical lightness of a water nymph, Laura O’Malley resists only to give away her secrets, and Madeline DeVries sends full-body communiqués. The men drive with a surety that does not brake for animus, and yet slows to regain access to the folding and extending drivers that pump up a bellows crescendo resolving in a playful release.
The company will take it on the road in May and July, so if readers afar can’t catch them in San Francisco, do find a way to see them in Ljubljana, Ludwigshafen, Bonn, Rouen, Le Peureux sur Marne, Dublin, Ravenna, Vaison-la-Romaine, Barcelona, Bolzano, or Bodrum. Get there any way you can, but get there!