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DANCE REVIEW: Alonzo King's LINES Ballet's 'Four Heart Testaments' is a feast for the eyes

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

James Gowan of Alonzo King LINES Ballet performs "Four Heart Testaments." 

BECKET — At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, the legendary choreographer Alonzo King’s company — Alonzo King LINES Ballet, celebrating its 40th anniversary — presents a program which illustrates, powerfully, his decadeslong investigation into the flow between the physical and the metaphysical. He’s interested in how the physics of dance work, but he’s also interested in the poetic possibilities of the human body. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about the supreme artist/athletes in his troupe; individualism is king, but the sense that a being’s uniqueness will result in more unified humanity is King.

The first, shorter part of the program is composed of four excerpts from longer dances stitched together and titled “Four Heart Testaments.” In the 2020 “Grace,” from “Pie Jesu,” longtime company dancer Adji Cissoko picks her way from upstage to downstage, stork-stepping on her gloriously long legs while her torso and arms wave and ripple; this physical multiplicity — one or more parts of the body extending out, with impossible length, while other parts of the body curve, whip and furl with impossible speed — is one of many familiar Kingisms seen throughout the physical vocabulary in his dances. When Ilaria Guerra enters, soon after, she underscores another breathtaking aspect of King’s phrases, and so remarkable about the level to which his dancers have taken them: despite the velocity of many of the movements, they aren’t blurred, somehow, they are instead etched into space.

While this juxtapositional physicality is, in King’s choreography, usually imbued with a creamy texture, there are some purposely jarring images, as in “Writing Ground,” the excerpt from the 2010 “Over My Head,” set to a gorgeous recording of Kathleen Battle singing the traditional song of the title. Madeline DeVries, another star in King’s galaxy, bumbles about on awkwardly tottering, turned in legs, or flops over like a rag doll at the end of her rope, but presses on nonetheless.

The two men, Shuaib Elhassan and Michael Montgomery, in the opening section, meanwhile, demonstrate other King specialties, the pirouettes in which the gesture leg moves, as if restless, from one position to another, while the rest of dancer’s body maintains an eerie eye of the storm, so the turn somehow goes on and on. Sometimes dancers morph into another movements, seamlessly, though sometimes they pause, cannily, hovering. King has staging trademarks as well. His dancers will often stand off to the side, watching another dancer, usually with easy camaraderie; in the third section, however (an excerpt from King’s 2008 “The Radius of Convergence”), this motif is infused with uncertain drama as four men encircle a now-cool, now-agitated James Gowan, or form various lines behind or to the side of him, like a corps de ballet framing the soloist.

Often, when the observers do begin dancing, it’s not necessarily to form a traditional duet, or an ensemble, but rather the effect is of a series of overlapping, thrillingly virtuosic soloists. In the fourth section, the excerpt from King’s 2007 “Rasa,” Elhassan, Gowan, and Montgomery take this to high octane heights and then end, simply, wittily, just sitting—spent, their hands to their heads.

The roaring (no kidding) standing ovation that followed this compilation felt like a deeply cathartic release after this absorbing dive into King’s world. After an intermission, his 2019 “Azoth” is shown in its entirety (it’s about 50 minutes long): Pace yourself. This tour de force is another visual feast, but, over the course of the evening, there is so much to take in, that the so much can feel like too much.

Or that first course can serve as the perfect entry into the main entrée. It is, certainly, familiar King territory, which means that (to me, anyway) along with the occasional sense that there is an over-reliance on the fireworks-out-of-nowhere-displays, there is also the frequent pleasure of the outright, undeniable, otherworldly beauty of his images, and performed by these spectacular dancers. To Charles Lloyd’s and Jason Moran’s now-bluesy, now-jazzy score for piano, sax, and flute, the cast of twelve move through an eclectic series of sections, some of which flow seamlessly together, while others appear abruptly—or tantalizingly, you decide. With three hanging grids, and later, small portable lights, the lighting and “image technology” of Jim French and Jim Campbell cast the dancers either in evocative shadow or bathed in warmth.

The title, as the program note explains, refers to the element “believed to be the essential agent of transformation in alchemy,” and though much of the ballet is an abstract display of those fireworks, there are indeed hints of transformation here and there. Some shifts are sartorial — the dancers have several costume changes; sometimes they are almost denuded by Robert Rosenwasser’s handsome designs, their leotards blending right in to their skin tones, sometimes waves of gold morph out of deep blues. The most overt, but mysterious, possible narrative unfolds in a long sequence in which Lorris Eichinger first battles unseen forces, thrusting at the air with spiky limbs, but is ultimately caught up, and cradled, protectively, by the others. He crouches off, into the wings, his fate uncertain. At the end of their equally-curious duet, Cissoko and Montgomery, via King, reverse the all-too-usual order of the gendered pas de deux, she upright and leading him, also crouching, by the hand, off into the opposite wings.


What: Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Where: Ted Shawn Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

When: Through Sunday, Aug. 7.

Performances: 8 p.m. Aug. 5 and 6; 2 p.m., Aug. 6 and 7

Tickets: $55 - $85

Reservations and more information: 413-243-0745, jacobspillow.org

A version of this review appeared in The Boston Globe. Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.

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