LINES Ballet stretches its limbs for the fall season

Oct. 22, 2010, 12:40 a.m.

LINES Ballet stretches its limbs for the fall season
Billowing fabric extends dancers' movement in time and space in LINES Ballet's performances of "Scheherazade" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Courtesy of RJ Muna)

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, based in San Francisco, is well known for its jaw-dropping collection of sinewy limbs and impossible virtuosity, offering the ideal vehicle for a choreographer’s every whim and creative impulse. And King’s are plenty.

LINES Ballet’s 2010 fall program opened with “Dust and Light,” drifting through Baroque instrumentals and choral odes. Aided by partners, dancers skimmed the surface of the floor and slid across it, suspended over a shoulder or spun upside down, only to be placed back on the ground without a moment’s hesitation. A seamless continuity of motion unfolded, one moment blending effortlessly into the next, as the beautiful fused with the extreme and even the slightly awkward.

Simply adorned in dresses, skirts or shorts in muted tones (costumes not always segregated as expected by gender), bodies traversed the stage and filled its three dimensions with shapes and shadows. Women’s skin-colored pointe shoes became natural extensions of the human body; they quietly magnified the scope of physical capacity rather than acting merely as instruments to don at show time.

Dancers frequently entered and exited the stage, and the audience’s gaze fell upon a quick succession of newly occupied spaces. Only in the final stretch of the 30-minute piece did the entire company return as a group for the most eloquent passage of unison, canonized and independent voices of “Dust and Light.” Darkness descended upon a last dancer, turning, back arched toward his leg bent high behind him, as his silhouette faded into black for intermission.

A provocative tale of adultery and murder, “Scheherazade” shocked Parisian audiences with a spectacle of the exotic and the erotic, a bold and colorful display capitalizing on society’s predilection for Orientalism. “The Book of One Thousand and One Nights,” or “The Arabian Nights,” inspired Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition loosely based on the tale of the Persian queen “Scheherazade,” and provided source material for the ballet. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes exported a Russian vision of the East to cultural centers of the West.

One hundred years later, King re-imagined the 1910 collaboration among Michel Fokine, Leon Bakst and Rimsky-Korsakov for the 21st century, forgoing most literal aspects of the original production.

King’s “Scheherazade” was performed to live tabla music in a stunning architecture of fabric and lighting. The set’s design ensconced the stage in rich yellows and reds, light ebbing and flowing against its solid and translucent surroundings. Dancers rippled their torsos and leapt through the air, draped in billowing costume pieces that extended their movement in time and space.

Ballets that lack explicit narrative elements are not uncommon, especially in the U.S., whose tradition was shaped by George Balanchine, master of the plot-less ballet. Balanchine’s deep understanding of musical qualities and their aesthetic repercussions, as well as the inherently dramatic effect of placing bodies on a stage, produced work that was both purposeful and compelling.

Fleeting moments in King’s choreography evoked a captivating atmosphere, but at times, it erred on indulgent rather than inspiring. On the surface, the dancers’ unnatural facility tapped physical expression to its fullest potential. But the movement sometimes strayed from emotional and dramatic cohesion that would give depth and resonance to the beautiful shapes.

Still, LINES is a superb company of international renown, home to artists of exquisite talent. “Dust and Light” and “Scheherazade” offered a feast for the eyes, an evening of visual rapture to be enjoyed by dance enthusiasts and novices alike.

LINES’ home season extends through this Sunday, Oct. 24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

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