Sunday, June 1, 2008

kung fu fusion

San Francisco's Lines Ballet has never been a stranger to cross-cultural collaboration. Long before mixing idioms was commonplace in the concert hall, company founder and artistic director Alonzo King began to inflect ballet with fractured, zigzagging shapes that held echoes of Asia, Indonesia and Africa.

Such cultural surfing could be an add-on or a gimmick, and in some hands it would. For King, however, recombining Western classical dance with non-Western forms is a fundamental aspect of his quest to find new ways of expressing what is shared across cultures and through time.

This week's reprise of "Long River High Sky," his 2007 collaboration with the masterful Shaolin Monks, demonstrates how potent cultural partnerships can be, and may be King's most riveting collaboration yet.

Performed through Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the evening-long work teams nine exquisite Lines dancers with seven kung fu practicing monks from the Shaolin Temple USA in Fremont dressed in robes of two shades of saffron.

Though not always transparent in its aims and overlong at times, the two-part work is a stunning exploration of energy, intention and communication through the body. The monks make the ballet dancers appear like gods and goddesses; the dancers reveal the monks' extraordinary earthy power both as warriors and masters of the physical. Together they create what, at moments, becomes a dreamscape of sublime and glinting movers.

The night opened on the serpentine limbs of bare-chested Brett Conway flowing through brash fluorescent-lit space downstage as Shi Yanliang watched from his crossed-leg position on the stage floor. Then the two movers changed roles and the monk slashed and squatted and burst through the air with fighting limbs.

This pattern of observing, then being observed, of standing apart, then partnering, became the rhythmic structure of the night's many extraordinary exchanges. Two languages were being spoken. Sometimes their grammar and syntax overlapped, or their intent — to communicate, to clarify — were the same.

Breathtaking Corey Scott-Gilbert appeared to embody a bird during one eloquent solo, and when Shi Yanzhong partnered Laurel Keen, King created a beautiful moment of touching, awkward humanity that reverberated through the night.

reprinted with permission

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