A glowing blue line travels across the back of the stage, a mystical trail which one dancer follows in cowering circles of movement. She wraps to center stage, beginning a cry, a song, in a dying language. The line behind her has created a mountain range. A line of dancers snake through the space, trotting with slack upper bodies, their arms and heads giving way to their downward weight. A tribal song plays in Mountain Maidu, one of the many languages throughout the show, matching the rhythm of their canter.
Figures of Speech, Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s most recent production, features several threatened, endangered, or extinct languages. Each language is listed at the bottom of the program, along with its population, location, and status. No translation is given throughout the performance, apart from the bodily expression of the dancers, which doesn’t disappoint. Quintessential contemporary ballet choreography, signature to King’s work, traces the textures and colors of native poetry, compiled by language activist and archivist Bob Holman. Other languages featured include Cheyenne (Montana Cheyenne Reservation), Kiowa (Oklahoma), Ladino (Jerusalem), and Sámi (Northern Europe). Windmill arms, off balanced passés, and seemingly endless pirouettes showcase not only the exquisite technique of each company member, but the profound passion in each soundtrack. The company moves seamlessly through 20 sections, their group work just as captivating as the numerous duets, trios and solos throughout.
Peppered between scattered bodies and frequent transitional moments, soloists and duets command focus with intense zeal. A male dancer powerfully swipes and jumps to the sound of children playing, the brute strength of his movement contrasting with the innocent screams and little feet running. Perhaps the sound is meant to represent an echo of the past, of simpler steps and purposes. Other sounds cast a darker shadow, such as instrumental drones like air blown into a bottle, during another duet that is sprightly and animated. While the swirl of multiple dancers draws the eye in one direction, a dancer turns to us and mouths more untranslated words, characterized by a theatrical expression. One dancer whispers in another’s ear. There seems to be a lot that is kept from the viewer, a secret history or story behind each soundtrack featured. Scripts of the various languages project across the back screen, then blaze and fade away as if being burned. The crisis of losing these vocabularies is ever present in the dancing. Mourning, celebration, empathy, curiosity – Figures of Speech evokes a myriad of reactions.
The expansive, expressive movement comes to a halt at this image: one dancer holds a string, and another takes the end across the stage. She pulls more, and gathers a nest at her feet. The nest quickly becomes tangled around her, as she twists it around her mouth, shoulders, legs and torso. She hands a separated portion to a man, who mimes hanging himself with it, then walks off stage. Shocking and randomly placed, his gesture distracts from her experience momentarily. One wonders if these two traumas are related, or just inhabit the same environment of violence. Disconcertion lingers in the air as she tangles further, the keeper of the string continuing to feed more to her. She is bound by herself or the forces around her, something all too relatable for women around the world. Paired with what might refer to the grim reality of masculinity throughout history, the two dancers bring our minds to more universal issues. Questions abound over her safety, her story, her fate.
Toward the end of the work, the company gathers upstage and connects side by side in impressive shapes and configurations. Their movement organizes a varied tableau, which they hold for several seconds. They create a human mountain range, a notated language using bodies, or perhaps notes to a song, before breaking and making the next image. A satisfying conglomeration after many sections of varied choreographic structures, they seem to represent the interconnectedness of the world, these languages and the cultures they come from, and how their memory lives on after death.
Figures of Speech performed at Meany Center for the Performing Arts on January 10-12, 2019. Find more information about LINES Ballet here.