Nederlands Dans Theater at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, 10/24/13
LINES Ballet at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 10/25/13
Last Friday at the opening of LINES Ballet’s home season, three highly notable former LINES members sat in the Yerba Buena Center audience. The night before, across the bridge at UC Berkeley, Drew Jacoby, Brett Conway, and Prince Credell had received standing ovations on tour with their new employer, Nederlands Dans Theater. I couldn’t help wondering whether LINES’ founder and choreographer, Alonzo King, was pained by their defections.
Not pained merely because the dancers would leave his company—this happens in careers, and it happens a lot to King, who has a gift for developing courageous, deeply present performers who then have their pick of opportunities. But pained because Nederlands Dans Theater is now the antithesis of everything that King and his LINES Ballet stand for. NDT’s identification with its longtime master choreographer, Jiri Kylian, is—last week’s Cal Performances engagement proved—being calculatedly demolished with the installation of two former NDT dancers, Paul Lightfoot and Sol De Leon, as the house choreographic team. And the contrast between their variety of postmodernism and King’s serendipitously illuminated a certain crossroads in dance—and perhaps, across the arts.
In many respects, NDT and LINES’ shows were strikingly similar. Each presented two pieces with a unified aesthetic, the first featuring big group dance statements, and the second a longer series of duets and small ensembles. Both companies rely on a high-fashion “look”: Lightfoot and DeLeon favor tall stark backdrops and urban hipster togs (and toss in some tasteful female toplessness); King and his designer associate Robert Rosenwasser roll out mystical stage fog and sleek leotards. In both shows, the dancing was technically and expressively astonishing, and the movement vocabulary distinct, though I think King’s style, a surreal extension of ballet’s baroque lines contrasted writhing ungainliness, is the more original. And finally in both shows, deep musicality—by which I mean choreographic structure that replies, in an illuminating way, to the music’s structure—was totally absent. (I’ll admit this was hard going for me in King’s opener, set to the same Bach George Balanchine used for his masterful “Concerto Barocco.”) At both NDT and LINES, some idea extrinsic to the music provided the scaffolding for short set pieces, many of which were quite clever (at NDT) or moving (at LINES).
But in so many deeper ways, the shows were opposites. For his long suite “Writing Ground” (billed as a collaboration with the novelist Colum McCann, though a bit of program text from McCann was the only sign of his involvement), LINES’ Alonzo King used sacred music, with absolute sincerity. His rambling program note earnestly described his search for transcendent truth.
At NDT under Lightfoot and DeLeon, the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was used as a joke, a joke of melodrama and mock-heroism. In their longer piece, “Schmetterling” (“Butterfly”), death was a joke, too, a woman with fake gray hair hobbling around with assistance from the studly males who pitied her. Or at least, my husband insisted to me that the choreographers’ intentions must have been joking. If so, I’m not sure most of the audience was in on it. Aside from dictating to us that “Schmetterling” was “astonishing” and “magical,” the peculiar program notes for NDT provided little more help than an interview with Lightfoot in which he discussed such artistically important matters as whether he objects to being called “the crown prince of NDT” and whether he tweets.
The sum total was a portrait of two wildly contrasting cultures with diametric values, and driving back over the Bay Bridge from LINES, my husband and I felt protective of Alonzo King’s sincerity while also seeing some value to NDT’s hipster shrug. My husband felt that Alonzo King was really a modernist artist carrying on in a postmodern mode. Those labels are too slippery in usage to my mind, but I saw what my husband meant: King a crusader in the way of Martha Graham, making art that saved the world’s soul. The danger of this mode of art-making, my husband suggested, is that it valorizes the creator as enlightened hero, as guru truth-seer. Lightfoot and DeLeon and their ilk, he felt, were useful rejections of that “cult of personality” pitfall—creation pouring forth not from one anointed genius, but a team of equals. (And a male-female team at that.)
But if Lightfoot and DeLeon’s art and program posturing did not present them as truth-seekers, didn’t it still present a cult of personality: the cult of cool, smart people too wisened to believe in transcendence? I left NDT not liberated from the vanity of art-heroes, but saddened.
And after LINES, I thought about the dialectic here: sincerity on the one hand, insincerity on the other—were artists really left with an either/or? Defending Lightfoot and DeLeon, my husband said, “irony is the way of postmodernism,” which is a linkage I have heard from many lips. But irony can be perfectly sincere, and “postmodern artists” (the writer Donald Bartheleme leapt to mind) can be, in their sly way, quite sincere, too. Blaming “postmodernism,” as we so often do, lets artists shirk individual responsibility.
And I wondered: Could we think of choreographers who transcended the either/or, who avoided the pitfall of genius-hero and the pitfall of insincerity? And immediately Mark Morris leapt to mind. An artist whose work is never about him and his truth-seeing, but always, always, about the music. Which, come to think of it, was the element that had been missing at both NDT and LINES. And I realized anew that service to music is so often that higher element in dance that allows irony and sincerity to co-exist, not just in Morris of course but in all the great musical choreographers: Balanchine, and—yes—Lightfoot and DeLeon’s predecessor at NDT, Kylian.
Is musicality the only means to reconciling of sincerity and irony? Surely not. I’m not left with the conclusion that LINES’ King and NDT’s Lightfoot and DeLeon should become musical choreographers. There are other lineages, other ways of escaping the self. Pina Bausch comes to mind: To me, she was a choreographer who finds the synthesis of irony and sincerity, and she was not musical. I could see strong signs of her influence on Lightfoot and DeLeon, moments of intimate encounter at the new NDT that were alas, despite their self-conscious intensity, not genuinely volatile. What higher force outside the self did Bausch serve in her art? Perhaps DeLeon and Lightfoot will find it, or find their own way. They are dealing with the anxiety of influence, carrying on after Kylian, and their shrugging posture is, I would venture, unconscious self-defense. I only hope that those former LINES dancers hang on to a few of the heart-laid-bare lessons their old guru Alonzo King taught them.