Alonzo King Lines Ballet, one of the most acclaimed, popular and accomplished troupes in contemporary dance, made its South Florida debut Saturday night at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. It was a gorgeous and moving performance in which Alonzo King’s fluid and startling version of ballet technique, his emotionally weighted choreography and the 11 superb dancers all made a powerful impression.
The bold opener was Concerto for Two Violins, named for its lovely Bach music, known in the dance world as the score for Concerto Barocco, one of George Balanchine’s most beloved ballets. But King offers a captivating new vision of this music. In the first movement, the troupe ricochets along with the vertiginously fast score; long reaching legs and arms flowing in and out of familiar classical shapes, combined with dizzyingly elastic movements of torso and arms, the dancers rippling and curving with uncanny fluidity. One man, Babatunji, rockets through with thrilling leaps, punctuating the ensemble as the violin solos punctuate the music.
In the adagio second section, instead of a classic pas de deux, Kara Wilkes, Laura O’Malley, Robb Beresford and Michael Montgomery move in a continuous, flowing chain, the men sensitively guiding and supporting the women. Rather than romance, we get a sense of tender human harmony. The joyous final section was thrilling, sharp patterns emerging miraculously from a near chaos of rapid movement.
One of the greatest pleasures of this performance was the dancers’ individuality and variety, with many of them types usually excluded classical dance. Courtney Henry (originally from West Palm Beach) is 6-foot-1, taller on point, a magnificent, regal figure whose sheer length enables a beautifully expanded geometry of movement. Montgomery and the other men often move with a grace and softness rarely seen in male dancers. Five in the company are African-American. All are beautifully distinct characters and performers.
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(Adding to all three pieces were Axel Morgenthaler’s clear and dramatic lighting and Robert Rosenwasser’s sleek, minimal costumes – the men were mostly bare-chested and the women bare-legged — which showed off the dancers’ uniformly lean figures and long limbs.)
In Men’s Quintet, to a warm Edgar Meyer violin concerto, Montgomery is a solo figure set against four other men, his arms and torso arching and reaching with the kind of soft, fluid grace usually reserved for ballerinas. The other four move together; in a line with hands outstretched to each others heads, or prancing bent over. You could imagine a faint echo of Swan Lake here: the aching, isolated figure with the wing-like arms, the four men like a famous quartet of swans in that ballet. But King’s Quintet has its own poignancy; it ends with Montgomery hurling himself into the other men’s arms. They cradle him briefly, then walk off to leave him alone.
The most powerful piece was Writing Ground, a long, ambitious work set to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist spiritual music. In the elaborate program notes, King writes of being drawn to these expressions of “zeal, longing, aspiration and transformation.” A potent sense of yearning does flow through Writing Ground, but just as striking was the inventiveness of its many segments, and the dancers’ individuality and expressiveness.
King’s style is so fluid and continuous that a sense of sameness sometimes threatens to overwhelm the choreography, despite its inventiveness. In Writing Ground, the 14 sections are very different, combining to create a powerful portrait of humanity.
Among the most striking moments: Henry in a proud and challenging duet with Robb Beresford, and later staggering across the stage on her hands while Montgomery holds her feet. The men taking turns in solos, like yearning, whirling prayers, to Hebrew song. Tiny, red-headed O’Malley and muscular Babatunji embracing, lifting, collapsing, struggling to comfort each other. Madeline DeVries in a thrillingly wild solo to Katherine Battle singing a magnificent acapella spiritual.
And finally, a fragile Wilkes with Shuaib Elhassan, Montgomery, Beresford and Jeffrey Van Sciver; she flailing, stumbling, seeming dizzy and almost demented, reaching and gesturing crazily, while the four men tenderly and carefully catch her, cradle her, lift her. Wilkes gives a tour de force performance; she seems a kind of holy fool, possessed by an exalted, crazed vision, which the men seem to treasure even if they can’t comprehend the spirit transforming her. It brought the lights down on Writing Ground, and the audience applauding to its feet.
Lines is the latest in a series of notable modern dance companies and artists, many of them African-American, and/or on their first visit to Miami, to perform at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Kudos for their thoughtful and adventurous programming.