“Long River, High Sky”
May 28, 2008
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, California
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano, 2008
It’s not difficult to understand why LINES Ballet packed them in at the reprise of “Long River, High Sky”, Alonzo King’s 2007 collaboration with wushu practicing Shaolin monks from China. The almost two-hour East meets West show proved that under the right circumstances different cultures indeed can meet. The work received one of the longest standing ovations that I can remember having seen in the Bay Area. It should have been no surprise. Who can resist a septet of flying thunder ball monks in tandem with a group of gorgeously articulate dancers on their own forays into space?
While maintaining much of work’s original structure, “Long” looked more integrated this time around because this septet of monks partnered with Lines’ nine dancers on a more equal level. Last year’s contingent, now apparently returned to China, included a rather elderly monk and a set of adorable ten-year old twins. The current group, residing in a monastery in Fremont in the East Bay, allowed for substantial choreographic interaction between the two types of performers
One reason that “Long” works as well as it does -- besides the sheer exhilaration of watching superbly focused performers in action -- is that the monks’ performing practice holds up a mirror to King’s way of working. They have trained to focus physical and mental energy into bursts of explosive, precisely placed force. The flying horizontal leaps, spine-challenging whipping turns and razor sharp thrusts create sharply drawn images. Integral to that image is an invisible opponent, a partner so to speak. King’s dancers also draw on focused internal energy. But theirs pulls them into multiple simultaneous directions. What to us may look like off-center balances and skewed alignments, so characteristic of King’s choreography, emanates from a constantly shifting center of gravity. It’s a more fluid approach that carves images which are no less striking. Underlying both styles of performance is a different response to a common basis of stillness.
The monks’ performance practice of short intense bursts of energy also fits nicely into King’s way of dealing with such theatrical exigencies as timing, rhythm, flow and structure. He approaches them by not establishing a trajectory, by not working with linear time, by not creating a sequential logic. Instead he places a number of small units—29 in “Long’s” case -- next to each other, letting them flow from one to another to suggest a vibrating continuum. Beginnings and endings don’t seem that important to him. “Long’s” overlapping styles of performance also inject a note of freshness that King’s other works sometimes lack.
The monks’ virtuosity and disciplined withdrawal into themselves, elicited justifiable gulps of admiration. But it was the interaction between dancers and monks that gave “Long” whatever depth it had. For that the ballet dancers deserved the major credit, they were extraordinary.
The opening getting-acquainted duet set the tone. Rising from a curl, Brett Conway opened his limbs, twisting himself into a fluid piece of architectural grace. The quietly sitting Shi Yanliang responded by a close to the body burst of kicks and stabs in which he somehow ended up holding his foot. Later on “Long’s” second act opened on a similar note with a duet between Shi Yansong and Shi Yanzhen in which a younger monk introduced himself to an older one. Both cases left you with a sense of a conversation having started.
The monks were often seen wandering through the physical landscape of King’s dreamy dancers. One them calmly watched a diagonal of what looked like travelers through cobwebs or clouds. At another point, three of them emerged like beams of light that had penetrated a pulsating organism.
Those walking patterns may have inspired a lovely circle dance. With the gloriously articulate Meredith Webster at the center, King dancers calmly traced a circle around her. They became kinetically more differentiated only during the downstage trajectory.
Long chains of in-place pulling and yanking suggested connectedness much the same way the oppositional pull of King’s duets does. In one set of duets one of the monk’s turned Meredith Webster’s arabesque into a slowly turning weather vane while the other dragged Laurel Keen across his back like a bag. And then the women supported the two men melting into their arms. That whole episode floated on top of a Tibetan folksong, played live by Melody of China.
Juxtaposed male ensembles contrasted the Shaolins’ directional physicality with the ballet dancers’ more exploratory approach. A few minutes later the two groups got together in duets of intricate but every so silken partnerings. A trio for Webster and Corey Scott-Gilbert had Conway worm his way into the couple’s interaction until they simply absorbed him. At another high point Keelan Whitmore soared out of an ensemble number liked an eagle surveying his realm. But maybe the evening ultimately belonged to Keen, mesmerizing in a long solo in which she allowed her body to respond to impulses from within even as they pushed her to a place that seemed unattainable.
Musically “Long” is one of King’s most sophisticated accomplishments. Miguel Frasconi’s synthesized a score from natural sounds and a plethora of musical sources was rhythmically rich and uncommonly evocative. The dancers also could not possibly have wished for more support than Melody of China’s three musicians provided in both set pieces and improvisations. The white of Colleen Quen’s glamorous costumes-wispy skirts for the women, knee-length pants for the men--beautifully contrasted with monks’ gold and brown robes. The first-rate artist Axel Morgenthaler one more time designed the excellent lighting.
Photo: Marty Sohl
Shi Yanguo and Corey Scott-Gilbert in “Long River-High Sky”
copyright © Rita Felciano