One of the great virtues of Alonzo King's Lines Ballet is its commitment to collaborate with other musicians and dancers to produce works that allow each collaborator to maintain artistic integrity within a creative meld. This year the company celebrated its 35th year with the Kronos Quartet, the stellar string quartet that, like Lines Ballet, dwells at the contemporary forefront of its artistic form.

Shuaib Elhassan (with company members) in <i>Common Ground</i> © Chris Hardy
Shuaib Elhassan (with company members) in Common Ground
© Chris Hardy

Both Kronos and Lines Ballet are based in San Francisco and this weekend’s world première performance of their Common Ground, opened at the city’s most prestigious venue for radical performance, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Common Ground begins with a short video by Jamie Lyons taken at San Francisco’s Sutro Baths, which filled the theater’s front scrim. It’s a moody panoramic view of the ocean from the coastline, focused on a craggy islet of rocks in the middle range, an eroding seawall in the foreground. We hear the sound of the ocean, the flight of birds.

A whitish line across the bottom of the image expanded upward from the stage and as it did the figures behind the scrim became just visible – ghostly presences. A woman dancing, a man. When the image faded and the scrim rose, the open stage repeated that cloudy darkness.

Upstage center, barely visible in the shadows, sat the Kronos Quartet, subtle light revealing their faces and the gleam of their instruments.

The first two pieces of five seamlessly presented sections had the entire company dancing in shifting groups, a trio of men with a female soloist, a trio of women and a male soloist, a duet, and so on – moving swiftly through composer Trey Spruance’s Séraphîta: II. Le Baphomet and shifting into Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s Play. The music was highly rhythmic with plucked strings and bows stuttering against strings; it suited Lines Ballet’s highly kinetic movement, which always placed the substantial materiality of the body in contrast to the fleet ephemerality of the music. In Play the musicians accompanied the dancers with their own stamping feet and slapping sounds along with the staccato of plucked strings.

Madeline DeVries and Shuaib Elhassan with the Kronos Quartet in <i>Common Ground</i> © Chris Hardy
Madeline DeVries and Shuaib Elhassan with the Kronos Quartet in Common Ground
© Chris Hardy
In his widely ranged use of movement, King never missed the opportunity for dancers to move on all levels of the body, as they spun, intertwined, leaped, but just as often dropped to the floor, crawled and rolled. Here the body never defied gravity but pulled against it, visibly, and that struggle was as emotionally resonant as any idealized aristocracy of balletic forms.

The more languorous and penetrating harmonies of Yotam Haber’s From the Book allowed the dancers to shift into more intimate and lyrical expression.

Madeleine DeVries and Shuaib Elhassan performed a classic King duet, in which the two dancers convey how together they defy gravity, reveling in their struggle against the earth’s pull. And in the last company section, set to Kosciów’s Hilathi, Michael Montgomery moved Ariel-like, winding through the other dancers like a ribbon caught in wind. Babatunji and Ashley Mayeux performed a stunning duet. Both dancers are muscular and athletic, unlike the long, thin and leggy dancers that King often seems to prefer, but both have the extreme and exquisite resilience of beautifully trained musculature. Mayeux’s lines are almost Baroque in their curvaceous eloquence. All this opulence was set off by the spare stage treatment of plain white lighting by Jim French. The costumes by Robert Rosenwasser, fabricated from a light silver fabric that was covered in cuts, created the effect of silver leaves fluttering in sunlight.

The program opened with Handel, which premiered in 2005 at the Swedish Royal Ballet, a work set to taped fragments from various Handel works, primarily for organ, and augmented by electronic music by Leslie Stuck into nine short sections. Each section presented duets and trios in which precision of detail replaced a more predictable vocabulary of dance movements. Outstanding solos were danced by Shuaib Elhassan and Robb Beresford. Ilaria Guerra danced the role of la fée d’argent in a glittering silver lamé disc of a tutu. Elegant YuJin Kim in a blue tutu was partnered stylishly by Elhassan.

Adji Cissoko and Jeffrey Van Sciver performed a duet that came as close to ecstatic as it’s possible to get on stage. Cissoko’s long legged extensions and ability to strike extreme positions à la seconde strike me as quintessential Lines Ballet. Abstract ballet always asks the question of meaning, and Alonzo King Lines Ballet is one of the few companies that answers that question with existential exactness. For them, movement, both simple and complex, takes on the shimmer of transcendence.

*****