Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA
July 15, 2015

Marni LaRose

Robb Beresford, Laura O'Malley, Michael Montgomery and Kara Wilkes in Concerto for Two Violins Photo Quinn B Wharton

Robb Beresford, Laura O’Malley, Michael Montgomery and Kara Wilkes in Concerto for Two Violins
Photo Quinn B Wharton

In 2008, Alonzo King received the second, ever, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. He returned to present Biophony, an ambitious 40-minute work which had its world premiere in April, and that was the cornerstone to a program featuring three divergent music styles.

Concerto for Two Violins, set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, was the only dance to feature classical music. The iconic score is instantly recognizable, so much so that it is near impossible not to conjure up images of other dances set to the same score.

In King’s interpretation, the choreography seems to fight the music, which is joyful and spirited. The dancers, as individuals, clearly embody passion and artistry, yet in the piece as a whole, no specific emotion is conveyed. Where the melody is structured, the dancers are largely unassembled. This might be interesting as a choreographic counterpoint, but there is none.

In the Vivace movement, one longs for the freedom of release offered in Paul Taylor’s Esplanade. Here, Bach’s music soars with carefree abandon yet King’s vocabulary is convulsed and constrained. Despite the energy of the dancers, the overall effect is that the dance seems labored.

In the Largo section, where the music is filled with yearning, there is, again, little emotion. Four dancers contort and intertwine in a chainlike effect that seems to imprison and confine them rather than connect them.

The choreography of the second piece, Men’s Quintet, an excerpt from The Radius of Convergence, balances the elements of structure and individualism a bit more successfully. This brief dance, with music by Edgar Meyer with Pharaoh Sanders, has a looser, jazz vibe. In it, five men circle somewhat wondrously and, on occasion, break out into individual movement like bright shining stars glowing in their own celestial light, only to rejoin the group again at various junctures.

Biophony, Alonzo King’s newest project, is an intriguing and ambitious work full of possibilities. It is set to a soundscape of natural recorded sounds made up of biological organisms and non-biological sounds recorded by Dr. Bernie Krause, “occasionally highlighted with musical instrumentation derived from the soundscape textures” by Richard Blackford. King describes it as “The Great Animal Orchestra Ballet” score.

Babatunji and Laura O'Malley in Biophony Photo Quinn B Wharton

Babatunji and Laura O’Malley in Biophony
Photo Quinn B Wharton

The piece introduces a greater vocabulary of movement to King’s signature dance vernacular. It incorporates precise and nuanced insect, avian, amphibian, animal gestures, all executed with great skill and force by his twelve gifted dancers. These are complemented by subtle costume elements. But the piece fails to develop to its potential. Again, isolated dancers somehow never connect with their brethren and when they do, they seem merely to interact in space rather than form genuine intertwined relationships. In these entanglements, body positions are largely back to front and eyes remain averted. There is no visual lock or communication. Even in the seventh movement, The Gift of Bees, the individual nature of each dancer is emphasized; the group does not swarm and develop as one.

In the program notes to Biophony, King refers to the how all music, language and sonic cultural expression was informed by biophonies, the collective sound procured by all vocal organisms in a given habitat. The soundscape is lovely. The dance does communicate a sense of life stirring below waters, rustling in the grass, and buzzing all around us. The notion of a collective sound and the idea behind the work is astounding but it seems King missed a great opportunity. Despite the universal sound of life and the natural sound of music that feeds the dance, it is the individual nature of existence that is highlighted in this work. There is no evolution, no collective soul, to the dance.

This, in sum, seems to be the weak thread that limits the works presented. The human connection that invigorates the human spirit and inspires emotion seems lacking throughout. The distinct music choices, the exquisite lighting designed by Axel Morgenthaler that miraculously highlights the shapes of individual dancers bathing them in variations of shadow and light, and the palate of natural earth tones in lighting and costume design, are all positive elements in the choreographic scheme. Alonzo King has a talented group of dancers at his disposal, and a deeply intelligent thought process that informs his work. If his appreciation of variety and diversity would develop to include the range of human emotions and more palpable emotional connections his work would be infused with greater meaning beyond that of form and line.