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Review: Alonzo King Lines Ballet Brings Power, Grace

Alonzo_King_150708_0690 - Shuaib Elhassan, foot grab credit RJ Muna
RJ Muna
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Friday evening saw the Louisville premiere of California-based Alonzo King Lines Ballet at the Brown Theatre. The company brought two new works, both of which it premiered in 2016.

“Art Songs,” a ballet in four movements set to a wide range of classical songs, is a beautiful integration of soaring musical arias with human relationships and emotion expressed through movement. Sung by Maya Lahyani, the arias of Bach, Handel, Schumann and Purcell remind us that music is one of the most un-mediated of art forms, embodying our deepest tragedies and our highest aspirations. King’s choreography reflects on and amplifies these ideas.

The first movement, “Ebarme Dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, showcased the full company in a series of duets and solos. The full company also performed the third movement, Schumann’s “Stille Tranen.”

A fascinating aspect of King’s choreography is that his movements are frequently contrapuntal to the music, giving a sense of syncopation rather than being married to the thematic progression of the music. This juxtaposition serves to heighten the abstract narrative of relationship set against music selections that aspire to the sacred.

Courtney Henry, Adji Cissoko and Madeleine DeVries danced Handel’s “Dove Sei, Amato Bene,” in which Henry’s movement embodied the keening of our earthbound human tribulations, echoed by Cissoko and DeVries. The final movement featured Yujin Kim and Michael Montgomery in a visceral interpretation of Handel’s “Dido’s Lament.” Whether the viewer is familiar with Dido and Aeneas or not, the tension and doom in this couple’s relationship is palpable throughout. The final moment of stillness brought the Brown audience to a matching stillness before the applause began.

A signature motif of King’s choreography, in particular for his female dancers, is the almost incredible extension of the leg in a multitude of battements and developpés that propel the extension -- the line -- beyond what seems physically possible. This is frequently juxtaposed with tightly-wound partnering, a combination that manifests the infinite variety of the human body.

After the intermission was King’s “Sand” with music by Charles Lloyd (saxophone) and Jason Moran (piano). It is not clear from the program notes or the company’s website how this collaboration proceeded; were the musicians in the rehearsal studio (they played live at the ballet’s premiere)? Did choreography precede music? Was the choreography set on the music?

These are important questions, as there were times when the movement and notes were absolutely interwoven rather than the choreography being in juxtaposition to musical motifs, a signature of the evening’s earlier work.

The program notes do feature King’s reflections on the properties of sand, ideas that are explored in the eight-movement ballet. In stark contrast to the absolute humanity of “Art Songs,” relationships between people and, perhaps, with a higher being, “Sand” is a more abstract exploration of how to be in relationship to or with another.

In this piece, it seems inequitable to lift up individual dancers -- as an individual grain is not all of sand.  However, the third movement, “We Hum,” was more lighthearted, and some of the busy-ness of the three dancers in relationship to the cascades of notes led to chuckles in the audience.

The Alonzo King Lines Ballet is a fine ensemble of powerful and graceful dancers whose athleticism and elegance, in equal measure, are exemplars of how the discipline and technique of ballet can be melded with the expansiveness and experimentation of modern dance, to create breathtaking moments in time and space.