Yerba Buena Theater, San Francisco, CA; November 20, 2014

Claudia Bauer

LINES Ballet dancers Robb Beresford (left) and Courtney Henry in 'Shostakovich'.  Photo © Quinn B. Wharton

LINES Ballet dancers Robb Beresford (left) and Courtney Henry in ‘Shostakovich’.
Photo © Quinn B. Wharton

San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King works on a spiritual plane. The theater is a tabernacle for his dances, which he describes as “‘thought structures’ created by the manipulation of energies that exist in matter through laws, which govern the space and movement directions of everything that exists.” Whether one perceives that meaning in his work, as embodied by the dancers of his LINES Ballet Company, is a personal matter. Either way, King’s pieces “Shostakovich” and “Rasa,” presented November 14–23 at Yerba Buena Theater during LINES’s fall home season, inspire praise.

“Shostakovich” got its world premiere on opening night, November 14. Selections from the composer’s string quartets Nos. 2, 3, 7 and 8 set a plaintive mood for King’s gymnastic choreography, which takes its balletic base to extreme dimensions: zippy triple and quadruple pirouettes unfurl from running starts, off-balance and with no apparent preparation; after a long arabesque in relevé, a dancer swings his leg down and into a grand battement en avant, then holds it there, still in relevé.

Bathed in lighting designer David Finn’s atmospheric glow, partners invert each another, layer over one another and interlace their supple limbs. The music takes an atonal twist, and torsos twist to the left while knees poke to the right; arms open like wings, flaring outward and back from hyperextended shoulders and culminating in hands that furl and flick. King tends to use unusually tall dancers, and pointe shoes only extend the reach of the women’s legs; their frequent développés á la seconde reach skyward. Some sequences even slow the dancers down to a grave tempo; it’s wonderful to see these hyper-fast dancers move slowly, and although “Shostakovich” lags from time to time, it is not in those sections. And if King’s desired effect is that of a Gothic cathedral, designed with earthbound rootedness and an illusion of heavenly height, his dancers achieve it.

Courtney Henry (left) and Robb Beresford  in 'Shostakovich'.  Photo © Quinn B. Wharton

Courtney Henry (left) and Robb Beresford in ‘Shostakovich’.
Photo © Quinn B. Wharton

Elements like these make King’s work immediately identifiable. The flip side of that consistency is a sameness of movement throughout the LINES oeuvre that can fatigue the mind after a few seasons. But this time around, his work feels fresh and newly intriguing, perhaps because of the updated roster: eight of the eleven company members joined in the last two years, and none go back further than 2011. They made the 2007 piece “Rasa,” the mesmerizing second piece on the bill, seem spontaneous.

Set to tabla music played live by Grammy-winning virtuoso Zakir Hussain and Grammy-nominated Indian violin star Kala Ramnath, “Rasa” unfolds in nine sections danced with and against rhythms played on dayan and bayan drums, cymbals, gongs, strings and guttural voices. Complex and indecipherable, the rhythms trigger unique movements in each dancer.

In the central ensemble section, dancers cycle on and off the stage, with two at a time dancing independently of one another as they respond to different percussive sounds. A cymbal clang sends Jeffrey Van Sciver’s arm into a quiver; drumbeats draw Kara Wilkes down into a crouching, crawling second position; Ramnath’s guttural vocalizations lift Madeline DeVries into off-kilter turns. Babatunji quotes his hip-hop origins with animation-style isolations, then launches into pique turns and petit allegro sequences alongside Michael Montgomery, Robb Beresford and Shuaib Elhassan. The effect was enchanting.

Adji Cissoko, Courtney Henry, Yujin Kim and Laura O’Malley round out the ensemble, who move so rapidly that tracking who is doing what means missing the big picture – better to just experience it. Robert Rosenwasser’s barely-there costumes (for both pieces on the bill) expose the dancers’ stunning musculature under Alain Lortie’s warm, golden lighting.

The company seems to bare it all figuratively as well. One senses that they feel King’s work viscerally; they are certainly part of his creation process, so the movement must feel organic to them, for all its aggressive extremity. Perhaps they comprehend King’s “movement structures” more deeply than anyone but King himself. Again, that’s a personal matter. I’m just looking forward to seeing them again next season.