Alonzo King Lines Ballet: The language of dance

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Alonzo King Lines Ballet presents Figures of Speech    

Among the many disappearances that our world is undergoing is that of language. Indigenous languages in particular are subject to disruption and disappearance. Alonzo King Lines Ballet celebrated the diversity and beauty of those languages in their spring season program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with the mesmerizing new ballet Figures of Speech in its world premiere.

This evening of dance featured songs and recitations from 12 languages that have been categorized from “extinct” to “reawakening.” Among them were Ainu, the language of northern Japan, which now only exists on Hokkaido; Basque, which exists provincially in the mountainous regions between France and Spain, and Iwaidja, a threatened Aboriginal language spoken in northern Australia. Among the Native American languages used were Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Selk’nam, and among the Californian native languages were Maidu, Nisenan and Ohlone.

New York poet Bob Holman, who has been involved in tracking and bringing attention to the rapid loss of language across the globe, served as creative consultant to the company, sharing recordings. As he has pointed out the loss of languages represents great cultural loss as well.

Most of the spoken word was song, and the vocalizing of Chilean poet Cecila Vicuña was included in the mix. Her language slipped easily from indigenous to Spanish to English: “The earth is a serpent,” she sang. “Beware of blood.” The songs and recitations were layered into a mix with drone-like instruments and touches of field recordings were included. The heady mix of sound was provided by Alexander MacSween and Philip Perkins.

Although language was the music for most of the dancing, and was even on the mute dancers’ lips, other languages of the earth were also on point. For just as indigenous cultures are slipping away so is the diversity of the natural world. There were drumbeats and thunder. Courtney Henry’s solo to digeridoo and Adji Cissoko’s rope solo set to bird songs were especially thrilling.

The 19-part ballet opened with dancer Yujin Kim moving across the darkened stage. And as she danced a line of bright video light moved with her. Appearing at hip level was an intense white light that traced an irregular pattern across the back of the stage, rising and falling like the branches of a tree, the path of a river with tributaries, or the line of a mountain range’s ridge. She danced across the stage and then spoke in a language that few understood or recognized. Throughout the performance, dancers opened and closed their mouths as if they were speaking. But no sound emerged. Or what did emerge was incomprehensible.

Simple iconic projections low on the blackened upstage scrim added to the mystery. At times they were simply a single image, or hieroglyph, which waverd as if it lit on fire.  Other times the language marched from left to right presenting what seemed to be a verse, written in the script of a mysterious and ancient language. The script disappeared into smoke as quickly as it was written. The subtle and elegant projections were by David Finn and David Murakami. Lighting was by David Finn.

As usual the Lines dancers were brilliant in movement, all of which was paced regularly and was compelling in its sheer audacity. At the end of the piece the dancers spanned the stage, and holding hands they curved their bodies into script-like configurations, as if they composed verse written in Sanskrit, their linked hands acting like the connecting stroke from which all letters and all meaning hangs.

Costumes were by Robert Rosenwasser, who favors sheer fabrics, revealing the exquisitely lean and long-legged bodies of the dancers. The only thing more revealing was the choreography. Alonzo King’s choreography showcases every sinewy muscle and reveals every talent, every skill, every beauty.

– Jaime Robles


Alonzo King Lines Ballet presents Figures of Speech at Yerba Buena Center for the Art through May 14. For information and tickets, visit

Photo: Robb Beresford performs in the world premiere of “Figures of Speech,” a collaboration between Alonzo King and poet Bob Holman, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, though May 14. Photo by Chris Hardy.