According to Lines Ballet’s current program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the propelled heart locates a voice for the body in motion. Artistic Director Alonzo King is famous for the broad-spectrum musical talent he invites in, notably Zakir Hussein and Pharoah Sanders, and is equally recognized for the ballet nostrums he eschews as obstructionist. For “The Propelled Heart,” Ms. Lisa Fischer, a Grammy-winning former back-up artist for Aretha Franklin, sings to arrangements and accompaniment by J.C. Maillard.
The voice is the body’s testimony, and the body, the voice’s witness, in a “Paradise Lost”-styled apologia for King’s guiding thesis that candor is the beauty secret common to all of humankind. Its absence spells ballet’s doom. Fischer’s power and range offer more than an echo of the five states of the heart that the program’s notes reference. Besides “propelled,” there is “dark, steady, devoted, and clean.” Her voice gives of itself unconditionally, asking nothing in return, save a dancer feedback loop of pure-of-heart interpretation.
Bathed in a triangular shaft of smoky white light, each of four dancers rises from the floor and proceeds to reveal the unique drive train at work from a place within. A larger complement of dancers gangs up or stretches past supra-rotational limits. Each individual emits a sound expressing in extremis terror, despair, or the death agony itself. These, to King’s thinking, issue from affective infirmities that plague the heart: hatred, shame, fear, grief, condemnation, race prejudice, pride of pedigree, and a narrow sense of respectability. The more soulful soulagements of hope arrive post-intermission, with such selections as “We’ll Never Turn Back,” by Bertha Gober, and a full out commitment-in-action to the song’s vow.
The company has always presented a cast of holistically virtuosic dancers, and it can sound like faint praise to say, “This is so different,” “Better!” or “You’ve reached higher.” Still, a new generation of dancers makes for the kind of ensemble that simply could not have been possible before. Encrypted in each one’s bourgeoning movement are the historical victories won by generations preceding theirs, that today birth a more fearless, less withholding kinesiology.
A dancer new to the company, Adji Cissoko, bears credentials from the Munich and ABT schools, as well as the National Ballet of Canada. Her musical certitude engages a set of sinewy limbs that definitively support any choreographic argument. Jeffrey Van Sciver invests body, soul, and something indescribably “more” in the work. He is a combatant for domination, at the same time following his star to a sublime letting go. Brett Conway has returned to the company after several years at Nederlands Dans Theater, where he danced the works of Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, and others. While not appearing to have stepped into the same river twice, with an added dash of seasoned confidence, he nonetheless reconnects fully with his Lines touchstone. Company veteran Kara Wilkes’ solo to Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” was timeless, a sensual paradox of classical contemporary interpretation. Courtney Henry is both brainy and feral, as she goes for the space between what she dominates and the remaining realms she wills herself to explore. All in all, whether Fischer is singing to bells, dulcimers, shouting out in spirituals, or intoning cello-inflected adagio, she moves engagingly with the dancers. Their voices nimbly climb the staves of her range.
Robert Rosenwasser’s women’s costumes in the Halston register add “stunning” to the mix. An evening to remember, it can propel even the most urbane of dance writers to take the artistic director aside, and ask him to propel heartfelt thanks to the dancers and their collaborators.
Question: Will Lang-Lang be next?