Concert champetre

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday July 29, 2008
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There's been ballet in the summer at Stern Grove often in the 70-year life of this great series. Free concerts in the park, what a great idea! Starting in the 1960s, our principal company, San Francisco Ballet, has danced there every year. This year, however, SFB's touring plans conflicted with the series, and Lines Contemporary Ballet slipped into the slot for the first time on Sunday, July 20. Their debut was a triumph.

Stern Grove is a natural amphitheater in South San Francisco, a green bower perfect for displaying art en plein air. The dreamy living sculptures that Lines creates hovered and darted, through the intermittent drizzle and sunshine, like the ocean birds they were often imitating. The crowd was happy; on the lawn, on the terraces, and up in the trees, picnickers grooved on the music and the dance. It's not possible to concentrate, quite; bees get in your hair, dragonflies bomb you like small helicopters, and you have to twist your neck trying to see around the heads in front of you. But the musicians got us going �" the great jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and a fantastic cadre of musicians trained in the music of North Africa filled the space with wondrous, strange sounds and intoxicating rhythms, in which the dancers seemed to be swimming.

I'd wondered how Alonzo King's moody, densely intimate choreography would fare out of doors. One is used to seeing his dances seductively lit, often set amidst smoke. Well, they don't need it.

Actually, the complex Pas de Deux, an American premiere performed by guest artists Muriel Maffre and Prince Credell, could have used mood lighting to bring out its inner mysteries. The piece is deep and perhaps troubled, the dancers seem to lean on each other to the breaking point. They separate in huddled ways; Maffre duck-walked en pointe across the back of the stage, but why? Intimate lighting could make this gel better.

The rest of the concert, however, needed no more atmosphere than God provided. We saw three pieces: "Migrations," a suite of dances full of bird-like movement, fantastic wing-spans, marvelous flamingo-style balances; the "Pas de Deux"; and "The Moroccan Project," a tremendously effective finale set to traditional Moroccan dance music performed by Hamideen. The crowd was overjoyed by this piece, jumped to their feet and cheered.

Stabbing point

For three decades, King has been pushing ballet technique, turning highly cantilevered, off-centered movement into a sensuous, mystical medium. Sometimes there will be terror, extreme agitation, dancers huddled or crumpled, or the ballerina stabbing the floor with her pointes; dancers will try to shove each other out of the way; sometimes the partnering will look knotted, almost immobile. But it's never hateful. The effects I remember best are poignant, as if two wounded soldiers were trying to get each other off the battlefield.

King's dances are mystico-erotic, like the poems of Rumi. They have many moods, but they are always "high." They look like moving sculpture. Beautiful bodies and a melting ease are prerequisite for his dancers. Associate Artistic Director Robert Rosenwasser triumphs in getting the clothes out of the way. The men usually appear in hot pants, with maybe a filmy shirt and nothing else but a good haircut and shoes the color of their legs; the women in filmy dresses like flower-petals, designed for this show by Colleen Quen.

King uses the far ends of ballet: the dancers are typically either way up on pointe, or descended into deep knee-bends, in a "melted" position where the leg is bent softly at the knee, often with the pelvis hovering just off the floor. A dancer might even whirl in this position.

The next morning what you can remember is how Brett Conway supported Meredith Webster in their duet, so that she had absolute freedom to give us everything she had �" and how Conway's devotion to her made him a star of as great a magnitude as hers. You remembered the tremendous wingspan of Corey Scott-Gilbert, whose finger-tips seemed to have purchase on the wind.

The dancers were Brett Conway, David Harvey, Ashley Jackson, Laurel Keen, Caroline Rocher, Corey Scott-Gilmore, Meredith Webster, Keelan Whitmore, Ricardo Zayas. "Migrations" was composed by Miguel Frasconi and Leslie Stuck, with saxophone obligato by Pharoah Sanders and much recorded bird-song.