Dallas — As the 2017-2018 TITAS season winds down, Alonzo King LINES Ballet keeps the energy rolling. Presented at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, artistic director Alonzo King and company share two works, with Axel Morgenthaler and Robert Rosenwasser provide lighting and costume design, respectively, for each.
Biophony proves the more interesting of the two, and uses a soundtrack by Bernie Krause and Richard Blackford of recorded animal noises. It contains a colossal amount of distinct elements, yet delivers an intriguing cohesion, much like the natural world. The piece opens with a lone dancer already moving as the lights brighten. Chirping crickets come across quite harsh (mostly due to the speakers at the Winspear), but the fluid quality of the dancer’s movement softens the sensory effect. Other performers enter, each having their own choreography that melds effortlessly with the rest of the group.
This separate-yet-unified essence pervades throughout other facets of the work. Dancers display individuality through their own maneuvers happening at the same time as their fellow artists, and the dance contains some duets, but very little ensemble and unison. Rarely do they don the exact same costume, even throughout wardrobe changes. Most of the time they’re wearing muted earth-toned dresses and capris, and some sections see a contrast of sleek, smoky variations of unitards. Occasionally, dancers clad pants or skirts with feathers would flutter on stage.
Even though the almost 45 work is separated into sections, they transition from one to the next fairly seamlessly, and lighting changes transport the viewer through various environments. Even though the sound score contains dozens of animal and nature sounds from around the globe (with some drums and a bit of melody thrown in), it all feels like it belongs in the same world. Overall, the entire work progresses as a peek into the natural happenings of the animal kingdom.
King employs an enormous amount of vocabulary, and arranges it in such a way that efforts to describe it leave this reviewer a bit stumped for words. The limitation of almost strictly animal sounds allows for a different way of thinking about ballet vocabulary. As in his previous works, he utilizes long, sustained holds to break up the flurry of movement, and the moments of recognizable ballet vocabulary happens within those drawn-out moments and occasional series of turns. Elegant extensions and enviable articulations of the feet provide the “ooh” and “aah” moments provoked only by the most breathtaking pictures.
The vast majority of the choreography would fall more to the contemporary modern spectrum and is imitative of the animal world, but in a way that’s neither animalistic or resembles usual dance maneuvers. Expected movement qualities pop up, such as buoyant leaps to frog croaks, small and quick flicks of the body when the birds come on, and a whirlwind of dancers when the unnerving sound of African bees arrives. At times, dancers travel inverted and on all four limbs. For a ballet company, even one that identifies as “contemporary”, it’s rather earthy.
The finished product elicits mixed thoughts. The dancers’ athletic prowess, attention to detail, and technical virtuosity is nothing short of brilliant, and for many audience members, those elements alone can overcome any less-than-stellar facets of the work. However, considering the multitude of sounds with the near absence of a discernable beat, the amount of different movements happening simultaneously, and the swift pace of the choreography, the finished product has a strong potential for sensory overload. It’s easy to get lost in the visual and auditory stimulation.
After intermission, Sand delivers the same virtuosic brilliance with a few similar elements as the previous work. A large backdrop of vertical, thin ropes (created by set designer Christopher Haas) replaces the cyclorama, offering a stunning yet simple complement to King’s rich vocabulary. A jazz score of mostly piano and saxophone by Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran delivers moments ranging from slow and contemplative to fierce and frenzied.
The subtle opening finds dancers arching back at various degrees and intensities, each at different times. With slicing arms and more deliberate lines, it closely resembles traditional modern dance at first, then a more articulated, fluid quality emerges, typical of the company’s usual aesthetic.
The first half presents a satisfying combination of dynamics. Adji Cissoko and Robb Beresford deliver an exquisitely connected duet, suspenseful and breathless, after which a male trio maneuvers through a spastic segment, with harsher choreography. The next section “Dreams” finds the company whirling through space, flinging arms and legs, then a sorrowful duet emerges.
The dance later maintains a tense mood, which both complements and contrasts with the dancers’ execution. Polished lines and impeccable technique easily sit alongside a quality that’s earthy and gritty rather than elegant and pristine. It’s one of the similarities to the previous work, as well as the few moments of unison in each, which intentionally lacks uniform ensemble precision.
The evening overall delivers an aesthetic that’s powerful, breathtaking, and many times overwhelming, but leaves one lingering thought. The dancers of LINES Ballet proves that there need not be a “line” between artist and athlete.