Being a Little More Necessary
Dance might not need music, but it's a tried and true pairing, like oysters and champagne, prosciutto and melon, Christmas and baby J. In this sense, when I attend a dance performance, I consider the two as one, whether they rely on each other to tell a specific, external story (as in the great classical ballets) or intertwine so completely as to form a mutually reflective and supportive relationship (thus relating an internal story, about each other). I also love when the two creative forms pose as independents, keeping as separate as possible yet flirting with chance counterpoints (as in much great modern ballet). Ideally, even when the movement does not "go with" the music, there exists an implicit and necessary relationship between the two. Otherwise, why bother?
Perhaps I was too enchanted with their performance last spring, or perhaps I shouldn't have carried that enchantment to my seat this past Friday night, but Lines Ballet's fall season performance left me somewhat disappointed. The program consists of two recent pieces, Migration and Sky Clad. What with the sounds of small percussion instruments (including toy piano), electronics, sweeping symphonic strings, and birds--chirps and squawks, screeches and cries--I should have been completely taken with Migration, The Hierarchical Migration of Birds and Mammals. But at intermission I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that, for Alonzo King, in this piece, any music would do; the dancers might just as well preen and stretch to a medley of Messiaen, John Lennon and Samuel Barber. Although somewhat raggedly stitched together (two composers, one score, multiple sections, last minute revisions), the music offers moments of pause and transition; the structure is all there, yet the dancers dance right over it, anticipating section-defining cadences, or wallowing in movement when the music has clearly turned another direction. This is not sloppy dancing; it simply shows no concern for the phrasing and dynamism of the music. It seems that this is choreography concerned only with itself.
The disjunct between choreography and composition continued in the second half of the program where live classical Indian music replaced the soundtrack of birds and instruments. Alonzo King tends to choreograph "piecey" ballets, with trios or quartets, a showcase solo moment, and a pas de deux--always a pas de deux--interspersed between full company numbers. Sky Clad is a suite of ten such sections, and as such, it fails to grow or develop, a point made all the more obvious in contrast to Rita Sahai's musical performance. Sahai moved fluidly from one raga to another, at times accompanied by viola or tabla or both, and her songs and transitions formed a satisfying whole. I wish that King could similarly build a larger, cohesive whole from his individual dances, but in both Migration and Sky Clad, he does not quite escape the dangers of composing à la suite. The repetition of movement--limbs that reach and pull into and against nothing but pure space, the pliable gestures between hand-clasped dancers--begins to read not as intentional, musical repetition, but as choreography that has run out of ideas. It is one-key, a bit redundant. At a certain point in Sky Clad, I wondered if this was simply the same choreography as for Migration, with a few nods to Indian dance (little intricate designs with flexed hands and feet) thrown in for good measure. I've seen great choreography and artistic vision by Alonzo King, but this program revealed a shortcoming: without a commitment--some kind of necessary connection--to the music, the choreography feels a little self-absorbed.
Such criticism is tough because the Lines dancers are beautiful, so strong, supple and graceful as to make one sigh. Yet two weeks ago, I witnessed a company of equally (if not more) beautiful dancers when Cloud Gate Dance Theatre came to Zellerbach. And I never questioned that musical score, a sparse offering of breath, gongs and woodblocks, and natural ambient sounds. I believed right away that the artistic vision found the music necessary, not as a mirror or an accompaniment to the dance, but as a respected, committed partner. I wish Alonzo King had somehow made the music a more necessary part of his choreography; I wish I hadn't walked out of there feeling like any music could do the job. It's not about dancing to the music, of course, just about setting aside singlemindedness to make respectful room for another.