On Saturday 3/11/2023 we went to the Mimi Ohio Theatre to see Alonzo King LINES Ballet. It was… It was… How to explain?
On the one hand, nothing can prepare you for LINES. Never in your wildest dreams have you imagined dancing like this.
To start with, there’s the very strong vertical that only highly trained ballet dancers can deliver; the LINES dancers can suddenly uncoil themselves into multiple turns with sustained finishes around that vertical. They can bend around that vertical with seemingly impossible fluidity. Jumps can also be part of the package although they were not much in evidence in Saturday’s program.
On the other hand, ballet has needed a ballet master like Alonzo King for a very long time. Consider some of the love-hate literature on ballet. Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave (Books; Out of Pain – The New York Times (nytimes.com)) depicted the extremes of ballet training, dieting, and substance abuse. More recently, a more sober memoir, Don’t Think, Dear, describes Alice Robb’s experiences “loving and leaving” George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet.
Ballet. There’s a lot to love and a lot to hate about it.
King has avoided at least some of the problems of ballet with two strategies. One, he sees ballet from a historical, global, universal perspective so that questions like, “Why do the swans all need to be very slender white women of the same height?” fall into irrelevance.
King’s second strategy is to see ballet technique not as a competition for some external perfection but as an inquiry into who you are and why you’re here. Those who want further explanation can hear King explaining himself in Sarah Subrum’s interview ((1) Behind The Curtain With Alonzo King 4 – YouTube) or in our 2013 interview (LINES Ballet @ PlayhouseSquare: Back to the Future | CoolCleveland). For those who want yet further explanation, Jennifer Homans has written an article. (Jennifer Homans: The Universalist | The New Republic)
So, anyway, there we were on Saturday night ready to watch King’s latest, Deep River, collaboration with pianist / composer / MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran and Grammy Award-winning vocalist Lisa Fischer. The dance takes its title from the African-American spiritual that dates back to at least 1867.
I want to cross over
Into camp ground
Other spirituals make appearances. At one point Fischer sings an extended passage.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long way from home, a long way from home
“Aha!” you say. “Black dancers dancing to African-American spirituals. It’s like Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.” But not so much. Revelations is modern dance that extensively represents the lyrics of the spirituals whereas King’s choreography makes only very occasional, slight reference to lyrics.
Yes, King’s choreography makes a few references to text. For Motherless Child, for instance, one of the LINES men carries an inert woman onto the stage and struggles to drag her the rest of the way across, so we see the struggle implicit in the spiritual and that King refers to in Subrum’s interview. At another point in Deep River, a solo woman dances as the vocalist sings, “In this world, no one can love me,” a lyric we don’t recognize as a spiritual but that fits the dance’s recurrent mood of lament. But such references are few in Deep River. Sinner men do not act out their flight from accountability in Deep River. Bolts of blue fabric do not undulate upstage. Church women in period dresses do not fan themselves.
Costume Design by LINES co-founder, executive director, and creative director Robert Rosenwasser starts with the women in long, narrow tunics and the men, bare-chested, in sarongs. As the dance continues, the costumes segue to the women in leotards and trunks and the men in bermuda shorts. Most of the costumes are in earth tones but the lighting by Jim French sometimes gives everything a golden cast and at one point a male soloist wears a bright orange sarong.
As the final pas de deux comes to an end, the couple bows center stage and the entire audience rises for an extended standing ovation. We hung around for the Q&A.
As soon as the dancers came out, we asked them, “How tall are the women in LINES?” “Tall,” they answered immediately with more than a hint of rue. “I’m the shortest at five nine,” says one. Ilaria Guerra owns to being an even six feet. Madeline DeVries is five ten. Very tall for women in ballet. Why the rue? Because in the rigid world of classical ballet, tall women, no matter how well they dance, are virtually unemployable. And why is that, dear reader?
Alonzo King LINES Ballet was presented by DanceCleveland and Tri-C Performing Arts with support from Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, George Gund Foundation, and Ohio Arts Council.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas