Choreographer Alonzo King loves high contrast. At least, that's true of his most recent visit to Portland with San Francisco-based LINES Ballet company, the fourth in 17 years.
Dance presenter White Bird touts the company, 11 classically trained ballerinas and ballet dancers, as seemingly "boneless." This is true of their top halves: dancers' sweeping, rounded and elongated arm movements flow like water. But their bottom halves are drastically different, legs often rigid and straight or bent at sharp angles like planks of wood floating in the ocean. This contrast makes the movement interesting though, and King's striking juxtapositions of the body are hard to forget.
"Concierto for Two Violins" opens the night. The piece is a result of the Barney Creative Prize, White Bird's yearly grant to its favorite choreographers. King won the first-ever Creative Prize back in 2011 and has worked on this piece since then. Set to one of Bach's most famous concertos, the resulting performance breathes even more life into an already energetic and intricate song. The dancers seem just as much instruments as the rapidly flourishing strings, hustling around stage to match the speed of Bach's composition. "Hustle" recalls a high school basketball coach shrilly blowing their whistle and shouting "move, move, move!" But the company, dressed in basic black and nude leotards under full lighting, hustles in the most fluid and graceful way possible, making even sudden, skidding stops on the stage seem easy before catapulting themselves off in another direction.
This is especially notable with Portland-native Babatunji, who solos in front of four other dancers at the beginning of the piece. An avalanche on stage, he's hard not to watch with his precise movement, delivered with a captivatingly ferocious power as he launches himself in expansive bounds across the stage, or spirals suddenly mid-leap.
The entire company maintains this rapid pace, exuding both thoughtful musicality—they scoop their arms sideways to match flurries of strings, for instance—and classic technique—we get a lively series of pas de chats and pirouettes. There's no sign of slowing in the second piece, "Men's Quintet," set to Edgar Meyer's "Violin Concerto Movement II."
The second half of the show seems a struggle for the dancers though. In "Writing Ground," a piece set to some of the earliest religious songs or prayers, the dancers maintain the same breakneck pacing and technique throughout but the genuine feeling of the piece seems just out of reach. In the 14 individual dances of "Writing Ground" dancers are seen stretching at full length up towards the light, alternately reaching faithfully and grasping desperately at its beams. Lighting techniques adds some drama here, reflecting like water in some pieces, mimicking feathers on a backdrop in another, or undulating slowly across the stage towards the end.
Unfortunately, awkward musical transitions and silences here repeatedly jar the pacing, and it's hard to tell if this is a stylistic choice or an accident. Still, the piece provides many of the night's highlights: In a crouched, en pointe walk three dancers resemble delicate and beautiful spiders creeping and stretching slowly forward across the stag. In Kara Wilke's solo, set to Kathleen Battle's haunting version of "Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air," Wilke moves swiftly from graceful to grotesque, changing the mood from gorgeous grandeur with effortless jumps to unsettling with unexpected kicks outward and flicks of the wrist.
In the final dance of the night, Courtney Henry continues this study in contrast. Strong and sinewy at 6 feet tall, she initially teeters around on unsteady ankles like a newborn deer taking its first steps. She then quickly morphs into a melancholy force to be reckoned with, sprinting around the stage before leaping into awaiting arms, or riding waves—in the form of the supporting hands of four company dancers--that loop her smoothly upside down and around. These moments, like much of King's choreographed pieces—are wholly unexpected.
SEE IT: Alonzo King LINES Ballet is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 Southwest Broadway, 245-1600. 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 27. $26-$72. Tickets here.