Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in performance with the Shaolin Monks
“Long River High Sky”
April 13-22, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Chang Jun (top) Brett Conway (bottom). Photo by Marty Sohl.
To a skeptic, the smorgasbord of multi-cultural collaborations on Alonzo King’s resume would lead one to conclude that he’s probably less interested in other cultures than he is in winning grants, carving out a niche for himself as the non-Western, non-classical, non-lily-white ballet company. He wouldn’t be the first choreographer making a superficial worldwide tour of cultures, offering a new flavor per season. (Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were doing “Orientalia” 100 years go). Indeed, in the last few years, King has offered up the BaAka pygmies from Central Africa, a Hindustani musical group, and a North African exploration, “The Moroccan Project”. Now there is “Long River High Sky”, an evening-length collaboration with the Shaolin Monks, a group of Chinese martial artists whose practice was first developed in the 6th Century.
But a skeptic would be wrong. Yes, King’s approach can look like a marketing strategy, but the dance that he puts on stage, in this case, meets the artistic challenge of cultural cross-examination head on. King not only respectfully approaches the physical and spiritual reality of the Shaolin tradition, but seems to have responded to these artists with a shift in his own choreography. The collaboration seems to have forced him into some new (and welcome) directions, especially in the use of group dynamics.
King’s super-fluid, hyper-kinetic ballet vocabulary has always been about individuals. A typical dance would be a story put together with a hundred way-out moments—-super-human feats of rapid-fire, quivery, undulating energy without much room for interaction, simplicity or stillness. The fact that his dancers have always invested in this form with reckless abandon and complete and utter conviction makes for a usually exciting experience. And yet, without the anchors of repetition, unison, relationship or narrative, the technique can look cold, and the movement arbitrary. After a while, it all begins to look the same. Here, he seems to be adding more unison, more formal geometry, moments that even look calm.
“Long River, High Sky” offers inevitable displays of dueling virtuosities. The company dancers, living dangerously on the edge of control, are fabulous. The martial artists, all male, featuring 10-year-old triplets (two of them anyway), a 70-year-old master, and three adult kung fu masters, offer “Crouching Tiger”-style attack-by-deflection tricks. But it is in the moments of simpler interactions that a sense of spiritual alignment between the two energetic worlds seems to meet. King has been at work on several levels, and the artistic product manages to challenge each step of the way.