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Sacred or Sensually Profane? Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet’s Dust and Light and Rasa at the Joyce, May 5-10

In a post-show interview on May 6th, Alonzo King made two short but definitive statements. The first was technical: his dancers focus on two goals: “more” and “better.” The other was interpretive; when a member of the audience asked how King wants us to interpret his work, the choreographer responded in parable (and I paraphrase): if I want you to meet my friend Mary, I can tell you “Mary is this and that,” but at a certain point you’ve got to meet her for yourself.

At the mention of the name “Mary,” I thought for a moment that King was talking about the Virgin Mary. He wasn’t; he could have as easily used the name Jane. But I think my fleeting intuition wasn’t completely off the mark—though Mary Magdalene would have been a more astute choice.

Forgive these religious references from an atheist who spent thirteen years in Catholic school—I have no intention to proselytize, and neither does King. But there is something undeniably sacred in Dust and Light—consider just the title, which alludes to the Judeo-Christian end—“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and beginning—“Let there be light.” The ballet is a series of fifteen suites set to Baroque concerti pieces from Arcangelo Corelli and choral hymns from Francis Poulenc. These set a sacred tone, but the dancing itself seems more concerned with dust than light. While the dancers have god-like bodies, they twist them into contortions that express stylized mortality. Wrapped around each other in tenuous balances, with bent arms and knees, and tilting dangerously off-center, their bodies describe the stuff of blood and guts, sinew and softer tissues, nerve endings, the brain stem. They enact the play between desire and repulsion, running in frustration, wheeling their arms in anguish, extending their torsos with longing.

In spite of the soft light, celestially shimmering costumes, and Latin hymns, I was certain this was a piece only about our profane desires, and the impossibility of sustained coupling. The first six suites are pas de deux, and while some feature two men, sometimes in skirts, I read that as the progressiveness of San Francisco (where LINES Ballet is based). But later in the piece, when all nine dancers are onstage, one suddenly runs on wearing a startlingly white shirt, long and open in the front, which somehow marks him as “chosen.” This cipher abruptly alters the tone of the piece. Before we can crystallize any narrative though, he has left the stage, and a different dancer appears wearing the shirt. There is only one such garment, but since its wearer changes, its significance is destabilized. It is certain, however, that romantic love no longer suffices to explain the dancers’ interactions.

Rasa, a sort of sister-piece and antidote to the enigmatic Dust and Light, is set to tabla music by Zakir Hussain. Upstage, black curtains break to reveal a growing, glowing chasm; behind them a scrim of crinkled, golden silk conjures ancient caverns. The tone is prehistoric, or at least pre-civilization; when Caroline Rocher begins the piece, on stage alone in a deep, squat-like plié, we think of earthquakes, volcanoes. She is Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the Volcano, or Xochiquetzal, Aztec patroness of erotic love. She is fierce. As more dancers enter the stage, this primeval theme deepens; they drag their bodies across the stage as if through thick mud, pulling up their legs with their hands. They still wear shoes—this is, after all, LINES Ballet—but they are no longer en pointe. The pas de deux have the same tone as Dust and Lights (brief moments of bliss between bouts of clawing and scratching), but the staging—the scrim, the music, the pre-dawn light, the earthy brown costumes—make the piece on the whole very different, even if the choreography is of a similar vocabulary.

Dust and Light dancers Laurel Keen and Brett Conway.  Credit:  Photography by Marty Shol.
Dust and Light dancers Laurel Keen and Brett Conway. Credit: Photography by Marty Shol.

In Sanskrit, “rasa” means essence, but my Western mind skips straight to the Latin translation (especially when primed by Poulenc’s holy whispers): blank, as in “tabula rasa.” In Rasa, the proverbial slate is blank—the music is without words, and the drummed rhythms primordial. The dancers plumb their physical depths to recover instinctual movement.

How, indeed, would King like us to interpret his work? Symbols are in play, but they are perfectly inscrutable. I’ve met Mary, but I’m not sure whether she’s a virgin or a whore. The primitive Rasa may even suggest that the truly virginal—that is, the pre-civilized—is what the civilized call whore. Between light and dust is life, which often burns with dark fire.

But I’ve not said anything about “more” and “better,” words which are more important than dust, light, virgin, whore, Sanskrit rasa, or Latin rasa. “More” and “better” describe King’s dancers—the astonishingly long Corey Scott-Gilbert, the intensely intentional Caroline Rocher, and all the rest of his tireless demigods—who give us more, physically and emotionally, than we would dare to expect from a ballet company. When King said “more” and “better,” I don’t think he was gloating, but with dancers like these, he could.


Dalia Ratnikas

DALIA RATNIKAS is a sometimes-dancer sometimes-writer who enjoys playing with her toes and twisting her body like a pretzel. You can also find her at dahlhaus.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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