Two stunning evenings of dance, bridging cultural differences

Lines Ballet of San Francisco explores the commonalities of Chinese monks and modern American dance. Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater dances across the intractable Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Crosscut archive image.

Scene from the video production log for <i>A Chekhovian Resolution</i>

Lines Ballet of San Francisco explores the commonalities of Chinese monks and modern American dance. Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater dances across the intractable Israeli-Palestinian divide.

If dance is a universal language, what can it say about cultural differences and conflicts? Two thoughtful American choreographers took up that question in concerts last weekend. At Meany Hall, Alonzo King, artistic director of Lines Ballet of San Francisco, explored commonalities between two distinct sub-cultures — contemporary American dance and the movement language of the monks of the Shaolin monastery of China. At the Moore Theatre, Donald Byrd, head of Seattle'ꀙs Spectrum Dance Theater, in collaboration with Israeli dancemakers Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror, addressed the intractable Israeli-Palestinian divide. Both evenings provided stunning moments.

Alonzo King created Long River, High Sky in 2007, a dance that puts a high gloss on the synthesis of the martial art traditions of Shaolin monks and his own contemporary ballet company. Within the work there are three aspects, all mutually co-existing though not always cohering. In some of the 29 different movement sections, he showcases the athletic wizardry and fierce concentration of the seven guest monk performers. The written program describes the monastery, in existence since the fifth century, as the source of the original form of kung fu, and of what has come to be known as Zen Buddhism. In their performance the monks combine the athletic leaps, turns, defensive postures, and elastic crouches of the former with the utmost concentration of the latter. It'ꀙs quite a display, though repeated a few times too often.

Other segments are given over to the lyrical flow and plasticity of King's choreography for his own company of nine. Excellent dancers all, they are led by the superb Keelan Whitmore, with his legs for days, great body placement, and astonishing flexibility. What King creates for his own company is a display of fine technique, fluid movement, and numerous extensions of arms and legs— acting both as contrast and complement to the more restricted and percussive movements of the compact Chinese performers.

There are also segments featuring the two groups, I presume choreographed or at least staged by King. One segment has monks 'ꀜteaching'ꀝ their vocabulary and spiritual sensibility to Lines, another a ritual of trust developed between all the performers, a third the smaller monks surrounding the elegant and elongated Whitmore as he dances. These joint scenes are of the most interest, and it is a pleasure to see the brave monks ably performing new movement given them by King. However visually stimulating these segments are, they also tend to simplify the idea of a meeting of East and West. Beautifully executed, and with stunning moments, Long River, High Sky aims for loftiness, but sometimes gets too enthralled with its movement delights.

At the Moore, Donald Byrd and his collaborators premiered A Chekovian Resolution: A Meditation on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It is the result of months of work including much research and community outreach, and is the debut concert of Spectrum'ꀙs proposed three-year project, Beyond Dance: Promoting Awareness and Mutual Understanding, which is meant to examine global issues through collaborative dance theater performance. This first work is one of great power and provocation, performed with exceptional grace, conviction, and stamina by the Spectrum dancers.

In the making of it, the dance became a metaphor, a 'ꀜtext'ꀝ as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz would say, for the very subject it set out to explore. The process of creation became rife with controversy, complications, and frustration. Known for his fearlessness and intellectual rigor, Byrd may have underestimated the complications inherent in confronting 'ꀜthe Palestinian question.'ꀝ

Byrd's musical collaborator, the Palestinian composer and performer Wissam Murad, was to appear live. Regretably, neither he nor another musician had their visas approved in time by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. The written program included a letter from local Palestinian activist Nada Elia, disapproving of the performance for, among other reasons, reinforcing the uneven power dynamics of the collaboration in which a Palestinian voice might be present, but only in a subservient role as a musician/composer belatedly selected in the process. It was unfortunate that Murad, whose music on taped accompaniment was quite affecting, could not be at the Moore to perform live, and to respond to questions from the audience at the Q&A after the performance.

Byrd says that he could find no Palestinian choreographer as a co-collaborator. A quick check of the Internet shows at least one Palestinian choreographer at work, Omar Bourghati. There are a number of Palestinian folkloric groups in the US and overseas, including a community group locally. The problem for Byrd may have been the understandable reluctance of these performers to participate in a project with Israelis.

Despite these difficulties, the end result is a stunningly rigorous work, one strongly sympathetic to the Palestinian'ꀙs plight. Byrd himself plays a central role as narrator and guide giving background and commentary. Some found his presence self-indulgent, too lengthy, and overwrought in a role far better served by a professional actor. I did find it too much at times, even overshadowing the dance now and then, but I liked Byrd'ꀙs presence. It gave the performance the sense of immediacy and urgency of an outsider enmeshed in this perplexing struggle. What he could have used was a good director who might have given focus to his performance and to the script.

A Chekovian Resolution consists of a number of scenes, some quite literal, others abstracted but conveying a profound sadness, and dense with struggle. Noteworthy was an argument across a table about who got to own what pieces of the turf, with the dancers behaving like children, a frustrated mediator in between, and an end with no victory as a paper (a map or an agreement) torn to shreds. Another scene is a glitzy Fosse-esque show-biz celebration of the lunacy of it all. The third is an immensely moving closing scene in which the dancers struggle center stage, unable to rid themselves of this heavy burden, while others do a slow and stylized line dance along the perimeter, a dance common to both sides in the struggle.

For this event, the venerable Moore Theater had its orchestra closed, with risers on three sides of the stage for seating the audience. The immediacy this offered to the emotional displays heightened them considerably for many, but also discomfited some who might never before have been that close to dancers. The choreography, while still very much Byrdian — tough and demanding — had a certain softness and release, a lack of the 'ꀜin your face'ꀝ approach that has been a hallmark of much of his previous work. I credit this to the collaboration with Ben Gal and Dror.

And why A Chekovian Resolution? It comes from a statement by the Israeli writer Amos Oz who says the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy can have two endings. A Shakespearean one where everyone dies and there is some lofty justice; or a Chekovian one that 'ꀜends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive.'ꀝ


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