Often the sets for Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet are simply a bare stage with spare geometric pattern lighting refracted through barely perceptible smoke. Similarly, the dancers are often clad in the most minimal costumes – purple clinging shorts for the men in Klang or diaphanous smocks over silvery jazz pants and leotards in The Steady Heart.

Meredith Webster and David Harvey © R J Muna
Meredith Webster and David Harvey
© R J Muna

These material settings – the lighting often designed by Axel Morgenthaler, the costuming by Robert Rosenwasser – epitomize the choreographer’s artistic vision. They swathe the physicality of the dancers in a hazy and suggestive presence. It’s both a contrast to and a resonance of the dancers’ bodies. King has always preferred a leggy and powerful muscularity, which is erotic in its sheer dynamism and exquisite in its configurations of interweaving limbs and torsos.

This past week the company opened its spring season, which is due to tour in June and July. The program is divided into two sections: the first a series of three excerpts seamlessly woven together in one piece. The second is the world premiere of an eight-part piece titled The Steady Heart.

The excerpts of the first half range over some 10 years of King’s choreographic life, beginning with Klang (1996), moving to The Radius of Convergence (2008) and ending with Koto (2002). The pieces are consistent within their movement vocabulary, which is abstract and ballet-based, even though the music varies more or less wildly – from music by legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders to koto virtuoso Miya Masaoka.

The same can be said of The Steady Heart, which combines celesta music by Michael Jon Fink with The Lama’s Chant by Jean-Philippe Rykiel and Lama Gyurme.

The Steady Heart reveals something slightly different, and that is traces of narrative. There is always narrative in dance, and this has been true of King’s choreography throughout his career, whenever there are two dancers on stage together. No matter how abstract the movement or how distant the interaction, two people form a narrative in our minds. And this is often intensified by King’s intertwining of two and three dancers – their bodies drape over each other, limbs twining, untwining and retwining.

The narrative in this case, however, is sparked by the ominous presence of a soldier in full tactical gear carrying a weapon. At first the soldier is barely visible, lurking in the upstage shadows, while two dancers, Kara Wilkes and Robb Beresford, perform a mesmerizing pas de deux: she wraps around him like a child on a Jungle Gym, hanging from limbs and climbing across and over thighs and torso.

Meredith Webster and David Harvey © R J Muna
Meredith Webster and David Harvey
© R J Muna

Later, the soldier is highlighted – a small screen placed in front of him so that backlighting etches his silhouette bleakly across the screen’s white fabric. At one point he joins the dance, performing an infernal and symbolically terrifying pas with the female dancer, who leans her body into the gun’s muzzle, placing it against her heart.

In his post-performance talk, King poses himself the question that was lingering in the audience’s mind: “Mr King, why is there a gun in the ballet?” He answers, “We live in an incredibly violent world and that violence is around us all the time… because we have violence inside of us.”

I’m not sure the explanation works, though it’s certainly an accurate observation. The boldness of the metaphor distracted from the engagement of the dancers with each other, and to a certain extent with the audience. But perhaps it was the sparseness of the soldier’s presence that detracted. For, surely, if violence is being represented and you believe that it is an ever-present human trait then it needs to be more active within the dance. Especially when the dance being performed is about the evanescent as well as the solid, the spiritual as well as the physical.

King also spent a fair amount of time explaining the philosophical underpinnings behind the work the company was premiering. “The Steady Heart” is a term – a stage, really – for the human religious development as described in the 1920 philosophical tract, The Holy Science. The book attempts to describe the essential unity in all religions, that “all creatures from the highest to the lowest in the link of creation are found eager to realize three things – existence, consciousness and bliss.”

This evolution is metaphorically described as “five states of the human heart: dark, propelled, steady, devoted, and clean”. The Steady Heart is the midway point: when “the world becomes dim” and “your love plan doesn’t seek reward”.

King has a track record for melding the seemingly dissonant: ballet and jazz, ballet and Shaolin kung fu, ballet and the Baka artists of the Rain Forest. In all cases, what has anchored his choreography has been his sense of physical movement and his dancers’ extraordinary talent and skill. Whatever his philosophy, the choreography is always engaging and the dancing always breathtaking.

*****