“Doesn’t it feel great to be back?” Alonzo King LINES Ballet board member Carolyn Tyler asked the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts audience Sunday night, and not unexpectedly, a roar went up from the houseful of supporters gathered in the (now) Blue Shield of California Theater for the benefit, a celebration replete with repertory by King, the artistic director.
Expect to hear that question a lot as the (hopefully) post-COVID dance world reopens; if it sounds repetitive, consider the alternative.
Unlike many dance companies, LINES had a public performance during the pandemic — last winter at the City’s Grace Cathedral, out of range of theater restrictions then in force. The new and remarkable suite was called Grace. An excerpt, “Pie Jesu,” to Gabriele Faure’s Requiem, set the tone for the evening: devotional, grateful, sometimes exuberant, sometimes mournful, questing and questioning.
There were no vaulted ceilings onstage, but one could envision them as the curtain rose on dancer Adji Cissoko, clad in a gossamer golden tunic over matching leotard, her slender arms reaching upward through a slightly smoky haze. Creative Director Robert Rosenwasser’s sets and costumes, as well as Jim French’s glowing, innovative lighting designs, joined seamlessly with the dancers and the dances. Cissoko was soon joined by Shuaib Elhassan and Michael Montgomery, in brown trunks, and Ilaria Guerra, as they explored tempi, moods, extensions, lifts. Together, the four dancers constitute youthful company veterans. Many of LINES’ dozen dancers have joined in the past few years.
Each of four well-chosen excerpts ran about five minutes. The next, “Over my Head,” sung by Kathleen Battle, was excerpted from King’s 2010 Writing Ground. The soloist, Madeleine DeVries, a commanding yet modest presence (yes, it can be done) who joined LINES in 2014, captured the strongly gestural focus, the supple and barely supplicant bends to earth.
Five men—Elhassan, Lorris Echinger, Babatunji, Montgomery, and Alvaro Montelongo — captivated in an excerpt from The Radius of Convergence (2008), set to music by Edgar Meyer with Pharoah Sanders. Beginning in the golden light of the backdrop, they never stopped exploring or exploding. Ballet leaps had new variants (nice to think of variants this way); supple moves were delivered with undulating, sinuous energy. The men were joined, in an excerpt from the 2007 Rasa, by three women in leafy green: DeVries, Guerra, and Maya Harr. Vigorous drumming to Zakir Hussain’s score launched the ensemble into daring dips, speedy reversals of direction, multiple spins, and a demure boogie.
Post-intermission, the 50-minute, 10-part, full company Azoth (2019), set to a stunning jazz score by Charles Lloyd and saxophonist Jason Moran, offered an alchemical parable in which the earth is humankind, or base metal, whose hearts and minds are to be transformed into spiritual gold. Azoth, the alchemists’ transformational agent, is mercury, the spirit within all matter, embodying A to Z — in Greek, everything from Alpha to Omega. It also stands for the Philosopher’s Stone, encompassing the universe.
So it was understandable that the beginning of the piece included symbolic excavation of the stage, the middle a series of dances alluding — guessing here — to the taxing, sometimes sorrowful, process of transformation, and the conclusion a return, in effect, to the beginning of the evening. As Michael Montgomery lifted Adji Cissoko straight up, one arm again upraised as in the “Pie Jesu,” there was a pause. And for one heart-stopping beat, she seemed not to search, but to soar.