Figures of Speech, Alonzo King’s latest work, tackles a profound subject – the disappearance of languages – against the backdrop of a monumental score that incorporates recordings of poetry, recited by native speakers of a dozen languages that are near extinction. These include Basque, Hawaiian, Ladino, and a handful of languages native to California tribes such as the Ohlone, plucked from an archive orchestrated by slam poet Bob Holman (who is also co-founder of the Endangered Language Alliance.) This collaboration could not have been conceived at a more timely moment, as the rise of autocracy around the world accelerates violence against indigenous and minority peoples, often wiping out their languages and cultures.

Yujin Kim and Robb Beresford in <i>Figures of Speech</i> © Chris Hardy
Yujin Kim and Robb Beresford in Figures of Speech
© Chris Hardy

Further adding color and a sense of urgency to the score are music and atmospheric sounds (roosters crowing; African drumming; sounds of a busy marketplace) composed and orchestrated by Alexander MacSween and Philip Perkins. Searing, too, are the scrolling video projections by David Finn and David Murakami that variously etch onto the backdrop the topography of mountains; lines of native script that appear to go up in smoke; and a slew of hieroglyphics that blaze then fade, as if pilot lights are being extinguished.

The dancers of Alonzo King LINES Ballet execute his mercurial choreography with customary aplomb. Each has unique physical gifts that keep one riveted through the stretches of aimless and repetitive movement compiled from King’s signature inventory of cocked hips, undulating torso, off-kilter piqués, legs flung up to the ear à la seconde, pinwheeling arms, and twisting of the neck and shoulders in striking defiance of the classical principles of contrapposto. From the poetic entrance of Yujin Kim, through the final sculptural linking of bodies in what looks like a border fence, the dancers move convulsively, as if shot or wounded ­– a dynamic that alternates with a more velvety, T’ai-chi-like movement quality. The intense grappling and aerodynamic body lines that characterize Michael Montgomery’s duet with Adji Cissoko exemplify the union of the austere and lush, the passionate and dispassionate that is most thrilling in King’s choreography.

Robb Beresford in <i>Figures of Speech</i> © Chris Hardy
Robb Beresford in Figures of Speech
© Chris Hardy

The exaggerated elegance of the movement seemed jarring, however, in a world of the marginalized and the oppressed. (So, too, did the chicness of the filmy garb in mossy colors that is also a trademark of this company.) This might have been less discomfiting had the meaning of the spoken words been made available through surtitles or program notes, or suggested more strongly by the choreography itself. It was no help to have the dancers frequently mouth the sounds with mostly tortured faces. If the point of the project was to illuminate the need to keep these endangered languages alive, translations of these precious words in some form was called for. The opaqueness of the movement just diminished their impact.

In contrast, the close proved immensely moving, with a line from a Hermetic text illuminated against the backdrop: “know ye not that ye are gods.”

King often shuns mimetic or narrative devices and seemed in this work to simply want to celebrate the rhythms, tones and textures of the soundtrack. The creative process behind Figures of Speech may well have been an enriching and meaningful experience to the dancers and the artistic team – and to the handful of people left on the planet who understand these languages. But isn't the point to spread the word?

Alonzo King Lines Ballet dancers in <i>Figures of Speech</i> © Chris Hardy
Alonzo King Lines Ballet dancers in Figures of Speech
© Chris Hardy

This objective seems particularly urgent, given that some linguists insist that languages should be allowed to die natural deaths. Pointing to the fact that new languages emerge through creolisation, these experts argue that activists should not seek to keep dying languages alive. In Figures of Speech, King and dancers make a visually eloquent, though frustratingly vague, plea for their resuscitation.

There is an inescapable parallel here to the tradition of ballet – whose vocabulary and grammar have been passed on orally through the centuries, and which many insist is passé and not worth preserving. Alonzo King, however, has done much to sustain and modernize the art form through his celebrated teaching methods; the impact of his philosophy of ballet technique is at least as profound as his artistic creations. 

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