In dance, the unknowns provide pleasant surprises

In a weekend of dance theater, delightful and unexpected results from local and visiting troupes.

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Dancers Franck and Thibault perform in Alonzo King's Dust and Light.

In a weekend of dance theater, delightful and unexpected results from local and visiting troupes.

"There are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” Donald Rumsfeld had it right. If only he had been speaking about dance. It is that unknown unknown that is the magic and eternal promise of the theater. I went to one dance concert last weekend expecting a lot, and one expecting far less. 

LINES Ballet, the San Francisco-based troupe, founded and directed by Alonzo King, returned to UW’s Meany Hall after a three year absence on Friday. The next night Cornish Dance Theater, the student company of the Cornish College for the Arts Dance Department, performed the works of faculty members and guest artist, Danny Buraczeski.

The last time LINES appeared at Meany in 2008, the company presented an evening-length work featuring the Chinese Shaolin Monks, of Kung-fu fame, in an East-meets-West dance by artistic director, King.

This time around, the twelve extraordinary dancers did not share the bill with any guests, but, at times, were almost upstaged by scintillating lighting, costumes, and set designs.

Of the evening’s two works, the first, Dust and Light, was the more captivating. Created by King in 2009, the piece featured a collage of music that alternated the heavenly choral works of Francis Poulenc with the Baroque sounds of Arcangelo Corelli. The dance was a bouquet to its performers — a dazzling showcase by King for the exquisite group of dancers he has assembled.

The fourteen abstract segments were mostly duets, with a few trios and quartets, and a group finale. Each is a little mystery; loving, combative, estranged, tormented, detached. While the principals were fully engaged with each other, we often saw other dancers appear — sometimes quite briefly — perhaps crawling on hands and knees, assisting in partnering a man or woman, or doing a brief movement sequence that acts as counterpoint to the main action. In one instance, Ricardo Zayas beautifully performed a lyrical solo, with three men behind him doing abrupt, squiggly movement, as if mocking his intent.

A colleague pointed out that the dance’s title might reference the Bible: the first light of creation that precedes the appearance of humankind, and the dust to which we all succumb. Perhaps King is alluding to life’s struggles and rewards for this in-between time we have on earth.  

Whatever the intent of the piece, its profoundness lay not in the accumulation of its choreography, but in the performers themselves. King’s gift as an artist is to offer movement to his dancers that they wear as a second skin, and perform with virtuosity and eagerness.

He appears to draw from multiple sources for his movement vocabulary. A baseline of ballet technique is integrated with influences from African and African-American dance. The integration adds pliable backs and torsos, from which emerge fluid and decorative arms, bending and reaching out as if offering a prayer or benediction. A taste of the contemporary idiosyncratic twitch of post-modern choreographers like Twyla Tharp or Trisha Brown offers even more distinctiveness.

Dust and Light has a rapidly changing lighting and stage design by Axel Morgenthaler. The effect is so kinetic that one might have briefly ignored the dance to watch a dramatic lighting cue or a traveler curtain open and close, all adding to this enigma of a piece.

The overall serenity in the blending of the Corelli and the Poulenc is sometimes interrupted by a jarring transition: The end of a lively harpsichord passage segued uncomfortably into an angelic choir. It can take a moment or two to settle back into the work. More jarring is the end of the dance, with its suddenly bright and up-tempo music and the onstage appearance of the entire company, for a big bang finish that seems out of place with the earlier intimacy of Dust and Light.

The second half of the evening was devoted to King’s read of Scheherazade. The score, inspired by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was the work of masterful tabla player, composer, and audacious cross-cultural explorer Zakir Hussain. Intriguing but not always cohesive, it resonated with a range of instrumentation that included percussion, harp, shamisen, Indian violin, perhaps even throat singing. Unfortunately, all were presented too loudly and with a too heavy hand on the reverb.

For King, who is also an explorer across boundaries, Scheherazade is more than the woman familiar to us from the Persian/Arabic stories, who saved her own life through the spinning of fabulous narratives. She is, as the program notes, “the symbol of a savior. She weaves tales not to save her own life, but to save humanity fromits unending retributive response to injury.”

Sadly, this concept is buried under an almost non-stop assault of movement that varies little from Dust and Light. A billowing set piece, meant to evoke place, served as additional distraction. Against my own wishes, I found myself searching for a narrative thread to help me catch hold of a work that never slowed down enough to create a resonant coherence. Movement can successfully be metaphor, but it needs to be better shaped and invested with deeper meaning than this Scheherazade.

All of the evening’s dancers were superb, but special kudos go to stalwart Keelan Whitmore, the ethereal Kara Wilkes and Yujin Kim, and leggy Meredith Webster.

Descending from the heights of King’s Temple of Terpsichore, the next night I ventured past the plucky campers of Occupy Wall Street Seattle, to Capitol Hill’s Broadway Performance Hall to see Cornish Dance Theater.

Over many decades the Dance Department at Cornish College of the Arts has provided the Northwest — and beyond — with a constant stream of inventive and thoughtful contemporary dancers, choreographers, and teachers. I recently found myself in Maputo, Mozambique offering master classes to a workshop of excellent local dancers, whose bright, young director was a Cornish graduate.

My evening was surprisingly delightful and entertaining. I admit to some trepidation as the first piece began: Jason Ohlberg’s Symphony in G Minor, The Pond, a dance for 12 women. The quiet images of birds on a pond is a well-worn one. Sigh, another evening of modern dance.

But then boom — and I mean it literally — a shot-gun goes off half-way through, and we are off to the races. Mozart begins (birdcalls and other natural sounds served as the score to this point), and the dancers flew around the stage in full-out formations for the next ten minutes; startled gaggles of geese, a raft of ducks, and probably a few tongue-in-cheek swans from that bird ballet. It was a clever and skilled movement of grouped bodies around the stage.

The aquatic metaphor continued with Wade Madsen’s Water, a constant flow of the thirteen dancers on and off-stage, as if moved by emotional currents. Two pleasing elements of the work: the music by adventurous local choral group, The Esoterics, directed by composer Eric Banks (unfortunately recorded, not performed live); and the sweetness of the huddled masses of dancers standing and shifting as quietly as possible in the exposed wings of the not-very-wide stage, waiting for their next cue to enter.

There was not a cutting-edge piece in this concert, and that was actually part of its pleasure. These were dances made by mature, seasoned artists that had a formalism about them, balancing performance, movement, and structure intelligently. While not ground-breaking, each had its own charms.

You just don’t see works anymore like Pat Hon’s Las Harmanas. Indebted to her study with Martha Graham and to her own background in Spanish dance, Hon created a highly dramatic, Garcia Lorca-like work about five repressed daughters, dominated by a harsh mother. When a young suitor arrives to court the eldest, he instead has an affair with the youngest. This is the stuff of melodrama, punctuated by some over-the-top solo piano from Ernesto Lecuona.

The Cornish dancers did not yet have the interpretive skills to bring their roles to life (Where’s a good diva when you need one?), but the work grew on me as it went along — a dramatic exposition through dance. I’ve never seen a piece by Ms. Hon before, so this may be her regular fare. In any case I was happy to see this one, and I’m sure it was a good challenge for the student dancers. Jesse Smith made the strongest impression as the Youngest Daughter.

The concert closed with a crowd pleaser: A work that has been delighting audiences since 1994 — guest artist Danny Buraczeski’s Swing Concerto, with music by klezmer band Brave Old World, Artie Shaw, Louis Prima, and Benny Goodman. Buraczeski set it on the dancers as part of a residency he did at Cornish several weeks ago. I saw a partial run-through of the piece in its early stages, and therefore could chart its progress to finished product.

Swing Concerto explores how klezmer music — brought to the United States by Eastern European Jewish immigrants — influenced the swing music of the 30s and 40s, produced in part by the sons of these same immigrants (I’m not sure what Italian American Louie Prima is doing in the mix, but what the hell, this is America!). The music was partnered with dances that started out as abstracted folk steps, redolent of Eastern European forms, then gradually shifted over to well-known swing dance movements.

Yes, it was all a bit corny and predictable, and the steps weren’t the most complex, but it was also great fun. Buraczeski — now a professor at Southern Methodist University, but before that a Broadway gypsy and director of his own long-time jazz company — knows how to work the crowd, and get the dancers moving. And the music — well, just the grooviest.

The Cornish dancers were game for the challenge, but most didn’t have quite the get-down freeness that the movement commands. As the character who bridges the old and new worlds, Kelton Roth did an impressive job. It was a pleasure to see his progress from rehearsal to performance, and he has a wonderful stage presence.

If Martha Graham were still alive, she would snap him up as one of those handsome hunky guys she used to love to have in her company. Still, a little more looseness in his performance would add more to it — a quality that fellow performer Sam Picard had in spades.  
Swing Concerto was a nice way to end an evening of unknown unknowns. But exiting the theater and seeing the Occupy Seattle encampment reminded me that there were, sadly, other unknowns in our world not so pleasant to encounter.


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