In an extraordinary coup, Duke Performances and Duke Dance presented the American premiere of choreographer Alonzo King’s brilliant re-imagining of the ancient tale of Scheherazade in Reynolds Theater, capping a week-long residency by the artist and his company, LINES Contemporary Ballet. Despite the largest winter storm in ten years, the San Francisco company danced for a full house, eliciting a passionate response. (Saturday’s repeat performance was also sold out.) King’s reimagining of Diaghilev’s famous 1910 dance brought it very much into the multicultural, globally-conscious 21st century — and made it the most beautiful production ever seen on the Reynolds Theater stage.
Scheherazade was commissioned by the Monaco Dance Forum Centenary of the Ballets Russes, and received its world premiere in Monte Carlo in December, as part of the worldwide celebration of the centennial of Sergei Diaghilev’s founding of his sizzling company, which ended up becoming the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. (For an excellent brief background, see Rebecca J. Ritzel's News and Observer preview.) The project included a refreshment of the famous Rimsky-Korsakov music by tabla master and composer Zakir Hussain, who scored it for violin, cello, oboe, oud, panderete, tabla, naqqara, lute, exabeba and harp. The removal of the brass and the introduction of the African and Eastern instruments, and the alteration of the rhythms, changed the emotional tone of the music greatly, making it both more mysterious and more capable of carrying the narrative of Scheherazade’s storytelling.
King makes his contemporary ballets without denying the formalism and the idealizing qualities that make classical ballet so breathtaking. All the tropes are there—not torqued unmercifully — but stretched and turned and angled, stripped back to essence. More importantly, King has achieved the mental clarity that allows his art — one prone to mystification beneath its decorations — to be “read” with unusual ease even while it retains its ineffable mystery. Every image is definite, ringing with truth; there is no murky excess. As the images flow by your eyes, understanding flows through your heart. The experience of watching thrills like comprehending a conversation in a language you thought you didn’t know.
There is nothing sparse or severe or plain in King’s aesthetic. His simplicity is rich — not just in gorgeous line and motion, but in space, light, color and texture. Working with a minimalist restraint, set designer Robert Rosenwasser made an exotic palace out of a few scrims and panels of crumpled cloth; it was brought to life by Axel Morgenthaler’s exquisite lighting. Rosenwasser, together with Colleen Quen, created delicate, airy costuming that appeared ready to float away or fall to the floor, and that added enormously to the eroticism of the dance.
LINES dancers are some of the best in the country, probably the world, and although their skin tones cover the full range, their body types are similar, long and lean. The women, particularly, are like cheetahs in their grace and power. There is no combination of unlikely shapes that this ensemble can make anything but harmonious. Extreme extensions at astonishing angles, cantilevering, off-center balancing, sudden reversals, the éclat of opposing forces meeting in the flesh — none of it awkward. Neither awkwardness nor irony has any place in King’s work. Even the struggles (power relations between men and women, for instance) are so beautiful that they are balm to the spirit. This is quite noticeable in Scheherazade: in one sequence we see Scheherazade (Laurel Keen) and Sharyar (Brett Conway) roped together; the answer to who’s pulling whom changes by the second, and we come to think of them not as captive and captor, but as humans linked by the endless line of story.
The program opened with another recent work, less narrative but almost as marvelous. A collaboration with jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, Refraction featured Moran’s intelligent music performed from the pit by him and The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen, bass, and Damion Reid, drums). I can’t think of another instance when the fusion of dance and music was so complete — when the dance was so clearly audible and the music so well seen. On any other program, this work, with its mathematical musicality, its angular lyricism and its profound humanity — not to mention the inventive costumes and active set — would probably have been the highlight. That such a dance, such music; such dancing and such playing, should be but prologue says more than anything else can about the artistry of this company, and magnitude of King’s Scheherazade in ballet’s firmament.