To say that it was a joy to see live dance again after some 16 months is an understatement. And seeing San Francisco-based Alonzo King LINES Ballet in the final offering of the Music Center’s al fresco “Dance at Dusk” series, proved to be the cherry on the quasi-post-pandemic cake. Although we are not out of the Covid woods yet—Los Angeles has reinstated its indoor mask mandate and the Delta variant is on the rise—being socially distanced in pods of four on the Jerry Moss Plaza, made for a perfect blend of art, community and, well, safety.
In this long-awaited return to a semblance of normalcy, everything was high-tech except, perhaps, the virus, which hopefully had been kept at bay, and the dancers. Indeed, the one-hour intermissionless program of eight works, including two West Coast premieres, could be accessed on cell phones, while the eleven gorgeous movers displayed the grace, grit and brilliant technique that are hallmarks needed to deploy King’s luscious choreography.
Having founded his troupe in 1982, King, who calls his works “thought structures,” has dances in the repertories of the world’s leading ballet and modern companies and has forged multi-disciplinary collaborations with prominent visual artists, musicians and composers across the globe. For this occasion, however, simplicity ruled, as all music was recorded and there were no sets, save for a partial view of Jacques Lipchitz’s “Peace on Earth” sculpture behind the stage and several stories of the Department of Water and Power building, which otherwise looms large on Hope Street.
Kickstarting the evening was King’s 2019, “The Personal Element.” Set to Jason Moran’s piano noodlings (he’s the Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz), the number featured a stellar octet, with each performer capable of morphing into a Greek god or goddess on a moment’s notice. One-legged hops, glorious balancing poses and near six o’clock extensions were threaded throughout the dance, while secure partnering dominated and sensual lifts proved breathtaking, among them the standout coupling of Adji Cissoko and Michael Montgomery.
With no pauses whatsoever, the program smoothly transitioned into Ashley Mayeux’s solo, “Over My Head,” from King’s 2010 “Writing Ground.” Soprano Kathleen Battle’s dulcet tones accompanied this brief work, bringing to mind today’s political atmosphere and the need to overcome injustices. From deep lunges to demi hand-stands, the spider-like Mayeux mesmerized in this powerful work.
“Child of Sky and Earth” and “Swift Arrow,” two dances that had world premieres at the Kennedy Center this past May, were another sign of a post-Covid world. The former, made for New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, saw her moving effortlessly and ebulliently to music by Moran and vocalist Gregory Porter. Her long hair flowing—a signal of freedom, perhaps—the ballerina strutted her near (aero)dynamic stuff. Whether changing direction with the swiftness of a Ferrari or intentionally wobbling on one leg, this dancer is at the top of her game, making it a thrill to be in her company, even as a mere audience member.
“Swift Arrow,” pairing Peck with another City Ballet member, Roman Mejia, was again set to a Moran score. Bounding through solos before coming together, the couple offered articulated movements that swarmed with fluttering arms in angsty, but playful mode, while angled lifts and arched backs permeated the dance with a yearning quality.
An excerpt from King’s 2008, “The Radius of Convergence,” rocked with five men—Lorris Eichinger, Babatunji, James Gowan, Alvaro Montelongo and Montgomery—to the music of bassist/Edgar Meyer with famed saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Teeming with pliant leaps, arms reaching skyward and unison walking, the work included the quintet forming a procession that not only swirled but then collapsed into a kind of prone conga line.
In “Pie Jesu,” an excerpt from King’s 2020 work, “Grace,” music from Fauré’s “Requiem” provided a haunting beauty and kind of redemption, with performers—Ilaria Guerra, Cissoko, Babatunji and Montgomery—bathed in gold (lighting design by Danielle Colburn). The dancers, displaying swiveled hips, fastidious pirouettes and swooping arms, took us on a journey of hope, something much needed in these uncertain times.
A segment from King’s “Rasa,” which premiered in 2007, saw seven performers slithering to the polyrhythmic sounds of Zakir Hussain and Kala Ramnath. This Middle Eastern-infused number bubbled with exotic shapes, awesome arabesques and slinky movements, with Mayeux’s sky-high extensions wowing and Montgomery’s slither factor off the charts.
“Epilogue Pas,” which premiered last month, showcased Cissoko and Montgomery in an impassioned duet. Their reverence—for the choreography and each other—saturated the cool night air and was a perfect coda to the evening.
All costumes—from form-fitting to breezy—were designed by LINES’ founder/executive director and designer Robert Rosenwasser; lighting was by A.J. Guban, Axel Morgenthaler, Alain Lortie, Jim French and Colburn; and sound design was courtesy of Philip Perkins.
While all of the performing arts have been adversely affected by Covid, dance was hit particularly hard. Thus was it reassuring—and reaffirming—to be in the presence of flesh-and-blood bodies moving through space as only dancers, specifically those capable of pristine technique while simultaneously mining the human spirit, can make happen.