Presented by World Music/CRASHarts, “Sutra” highlights one of the finest most recent collaborations of Eastern music with Western dance, showcasing the innovative melodies of composer Zakir Hussain and contemporary ballet choreographer Alonzo King. “Sutra” is not only World Music/CRASHarts’ first commissioned work, but marks the 35th Anniversary of Alonzo King LINES Ballet as well, and made its world premiere in the company’s home city of San Francisco, Calif. before making its East Coast debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Massachusetts.
The production derives its title from the word sutra—meaning “string” or “thread”—and corresponds with the Sanskrit words suci, meaning “needle,” and suna, meaning “woven.” Even without knowing this definition, viewers will undoubtedly come away with a sense of weaving. At times, the dancers are threading motion themselves—physically twisting their limbs and darting through one another with the sharp precision of a needle, causing an ensuing visual tug between dancers as if pulled by an invisible thread. At others, it is the music and choreography that entwines: The driving rhythms of the tabla, quick-tongued vocal percussion, and piercing strings of the sarangi (performed masterfully by Hussain & Sabir Khan) neither dominate, nor are subverted by, the choreography. Movement and sound heighten each other equally throughout the production, leaving one pondering, Which came first?
Yet sutra is also credited in the program notes as meaning “a treatise or theorem condensed into a few words,” and this is the one area in which “Sutra” could prosper from some fine tuning. Condensed, “Sutra” was not. Clocking in at 74 minutes with no intermission, the work felt long at times and could have benefitted from some editing. Despite these prolonged moments, “Sutra” remains visually and audibly striking from start to finish, with viewers marvelling at the unwavering energy exerted by all performers present.
King’s choreography is brilliantly suited for Hussain’s music composition, and vice versa. LINES is aptly named: These dancers have limbs that stretch and contort in an almost physically-defying manner, while King’s phrase work proffers movement that is at once linear, sharp, and powerful, as it is supple, curved, and empathetic. This dichotomy is felt also in Hussain’s music, beautifully punctuating the dancers’ bolder movements, while resonating softly in moments of calm.
“Sutra’s” narrative appears to be internal, known only to the characters interacting with one another onstage and perhaps to the cloaked musicians, hovering in the background through a dimly lit scrim. Yet through the abstraction, this reviewer took away themes of community, individuality, and the natural world, which is helped largely by lighting designers Scott Bolman and David Finn, whose saturated blues, ambers, and reds guide the dancers organically through the space. At one moment, the dancers are lit in a pool of deep blue light, which they seem to wade into. We see them move in unison while maintaining their individual approaches to the phrase; their arms are outreached as if beckoning the day before touching fingertips to shoulders and pushing majestically away. With hands reaching out, touching their foreheads, then wrapping around behind them, the lighting and choreography swirl, as if they are bathing in the Ganges. At another moment, the dancers cascade through dappled light, dressed in grays and greens. If shadows along the bed of a forest could speak, this surely would be their language.
If shadows along the bed of a forest could speak, this surely would be their language.
Fabric also plays an integral role in “Sutra,” acting not only as costuming, but as props, scenery, and extensions of the human body. Costume designer Robert Rosenwasser clothes the dancers in minimal, earthy tones, with tactile fabrics that subtly flutter and glisten once set in motion. Indeed, many of the work’s most striking moments revolve around the dancers’ interactions with these garments. In one scene, a dancer emerges hauling behind him an enormous bundle of skirts and scarves. Leaving it in the center of the stage, strife ensues, with all collapsing into the heap of fabric, then tossing it upwards into the air, creating a constant upward flame of textiles. It barely hits the ground before rising once more, this time unexpectedly, as a dancer inside the heap dances boldly, bringing formidable life to these otherwise inanimate clothes. At another, the dancers cross the stage, stretching their limbs and faces through sheer, stretched body suits—distorting their physical forms and toying with the number of limbs that can occupy a single shirt.
All of these elements combine to make “Sutra” the magnificent performance it is. As the piece ends, we finally witness these tireless dancers catching their breath. The men lie sprawled across the ground in a circle, while the women physically loosen their hair, and again bathe in the light. As all walk or roll offstage with weighted fatigue, the lights fade to black, the sarangi vibrates its final note, and the audience leaves the production feeling an elated exhaustion on the performers’ behalf.