This fall, Alonzo King puts his sleek, sinuous stamp on Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, with witty nods to predecessors George Balanchine and Paul Taylor who, in 1941 and 1975 respectively, created two towering classics of dance to the same piece of music. Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco and Taylor’s Esplanade could not be further apart in style – the former the archetype of the abstract “white” neoclassical ballet, on pointe, and the latter in bare feet, employing no formal dance steps – but both are pure expressions of the joy in Bach’s music.

Writing Ground (dancers: Robb Beresford and Kara Wilkes) © Margo Moritz
Writing Ground (dancers: Robb Beresford and Kara Wilkes)
© Margo Moritz

From Taylor, King adopts rapid spiraling and unspiraling movements that emanate from deep within the back, accompanied by whirlwind arms.

From Balanchine, he explodes the most famous passage in Barocco in which the corps women hop on pointe in a closed fifth position with knees slightly bent, traveling in and out of diagonal lines while opening and closing the arms overhead in a rapid mechanical pattern that echoes the music. King’s dancers – men and women, not on pointe – charge in and out of their lines, covering far more ground than the Barocco dancers, and add to the rapidly deployed arms a yearning upper body tilt, repudiating the vertical spine prescribed by Balanchine.

The result is sheer, sensual delight.

In structure, mood and vocabulary, Concerto for Two Violins is indistinguishable from much of King’s previous work. Each individual dances in his or her own cocoon, rarely making eye contact or looking out at the audience, slinking, crouching, sweeping in huge arcs across the stage, crisscrossing in seemingly random paths – the ensemble rarely in unison, occasionally in canon. Their interactions are brief and have the air of unpremeditated collisions. There is a push-pull to the partnering that suggests an aversion to commitment. These dancers, with their astonishingly fluid spines and noiseless jumps, seem to find their greatest fulfillment in dancing alone and for themselves. We feel like voyeurs.

There is, however, a nagging sense of loose ends to King’s Concerto, of a concept that simply trails off. (In contrast, Barocco and Esplanade both build and resolve tension magnificently, finishing with modest but delightful poetic flourishes.)

Concerto was followed by the American première of Writing Ground, originally commissioned by the Monaco Dance Forum in 2010, and set to sacred music from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian traditions (mainly extracted from Jordi Savall’s extraordinary arrangements for Jerusalem, and Forgotten Kingdom, the latter a musical testimony to the virulent crusade by the Catholic Church against a Christian sect). It opens with Savall’s own cacophonous “Fanfare against the barriers of spirit” – orchestrated for shofars and modern brass trumpets – that sounds like either a call to battle or a call to prayer.

King’s choice of score promotes the notion of dance as a bridge of empathy between languages and religious traditions. It is an ambitious task, one that seems to be only tentatively explored in the choreography. Perhaps we are just too distracted by the physical beauty of the dancers and their movement. A company of ravishing individuals, taller than the average ballet dancer, Alonzo King’s dancers move like jungle cats. Their extraordinary, lithe and sinewy physiques are accentuated by fetching variations on lingerie designed by King’s long-time collaborator Robert Rosenwasser and bathed in golden lighting by another long-time collaborator, Axel Morgenthaler.

The dance vocabulary and the shimmering production design, with the women in diaphanous shifts and the men in very little – notably Jeffrey Van Sciver in a gauzy skirt sculpted to billow beautifully during his perpetual whirling – closely resemble that of the Bach Concerto and of King’s earlier work.

A third collaborator, Irish American writer Colum McCann, wrote some free verse that is presented in the program notes and that seems to have inspired at least one of the episodes in Writing Ground, notably the final transcendent movement. The poetry alludes to the female experience of oppression of some kind that is not entirely clear, possibly meant to be universal, and to the documenting of that oppression.

This final movement was presented last season as part of a mixed program, and it stands apart from the preceding movements in the richness of its characterizations and the clarity of its narrative and emotional arc.

On Saturday, Meredith Webster gave us an unforgettable performance as the female victim – at once powerless and powerful – staggering across the floor, stabbing at it with her pointes, writhing in the grip of her four male companions. At times David Harvey, Michael Montgomery, Robb Beresford, and Jeffrey Van Sciver behave as her protectors, at other times they are her abusers: a riveting metaphor for society’s complicity in the torture and debasement of women. We share Webster’s panic, her exhaustion, her defiance, her exhilaration. Set to The Tsok Offering, a hypnotic chant by Bhutanese monk, Lama Gyurme, set against a synthesizer backdrop by Jean-Philippe Rykiel, this movement stands as a masterpiece of modern ballet.

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