LINES Ballet's signature elements distinguish it from nearly every other ballet company in the country. One is its rainbow troupe of physically gorgeous artists, with more dancers of color than any other ballet organization on the West Coast. The dancers are also idiosyncratic individuals, rather than homogeneous movers. One can cross the stage in a few spidery strides. Another is able to collapse and rise as if boneless. A third twists with Houdini flexibility.
King also breaks from ballet norms by collaborating with musicians such as Pharoah Sanders, Zakir Hussain, Hamza El Din, Mickey Hart and others.
While the world that materializes onstage echoes the couture runway in its beauty, the action is meant to be far more than a spectacle of eye-popping decor, costumes and bodies, or a pastiche of cultural influences.
LINES Ballet director Alonzo King inserts spectral threads into virtually every work he makes, so that the toil of the body is made synonymous with the hard work of the soul. When we lose ourselves in the ethereal spectacle of the human forms -- and we do -- we are drawn into a world that is both platonic and all-too-earthly. King usually succeeds at this delicate balancing act, but Friday night revealed how fragile such a proposition is.
Opening a two-week run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, LINES staged the premiere of its latest evening-length work, "The Propelled Heart," where heaven and hell are evident right from the opening scene. Much of the program's first half, in fact, leads us with exquisite dancing and poetic indirection into an awareness of both physical beauty and spiritual anguish. But this gets ruptured the moment the struggle is made literal.
The work begins with four dancers sitting in a cone of warm light and fog, heads bowed. Together they crook their arms, collapse and reorient themselves. One by one, each rises to perform a solo that serves to narrate an inner state. One dancer moves frenetically, with desperation. Another propels her arms like a machine. A third pulls invisible material from her mouth. A fourth cuts the air with her legs.
All the while, renowned singer Lisa Fischer -- who was featured in the film "20 Feet From Stardom" and whose credits include backup with Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Luther Vandross -- squawks and howls across octaves, as though echoing these spiritual states. Composer JC Maillard's electronic composition rings with dulcimer, hang (a steel percussion instrument) and flute.
Drawing from the teachings of Sri Yukteswar, mentor of Paramahansa Yogananda (whose philosophy King has followed for decades), the choreographer sets "The Propelled Heart" in what, according to Yukteswar, is plane 2 of a five-plane evolution. This means the dance occurs in a realm just up from the "dark" arena -- the "propelled" realm -- with the planes of "steady," "devoted" and "clean" still to be achieved.
Nowhere is this poetic structure more arresting than in part 3 of the 16-part work. With the company assembled en masse, each dancer moves in a space alone, fashioning a hell-scape reminiscent of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymous Bosch. As the dancers toil, Fischer wanders the stage playing the role of a kind of shaman. She sings, they halt; she ceases, and they move, building a pattern of call and response, with Fischer as both witness and shepherd.
But this structure evaporates when Fischer leaves free-form sound and takes up recognizable songs, including her Grammy Award-winning "How Can I Ease the Pain." As our attention turns to the R&B lyrics, metaphor suddenly turns literal, and King's layered realities collapse. Once that happens, the temporal and sentimental rush in. It turns out that even the "propelled" state is susceptible to slippage.
But a literalizing of the message doesn't erase the glorious performances of the dancers. Two-year LINES veteran Babatunji Johnson has a physical genius that manifests itself in liquid falls and equally fluid assents and an overall bodily intelligence that is both daring and humble. Longtime dancer Brett Conway has returned, and his faun-like form similarly reaches past cliché. Kara Wilkes, Michael Montgomery, Adji Cissoko, Courtney Henry, Madeleine DeVries, Laura O'Malley, Shuaib Elhassan, Robb Beresford, Yujin Kim and Jeffrey Van Sciver also danced like angels at the Friday opening, caught in a garden of sorrow given shape by Robert Rosenwasser's decor and costumes and Axel Morgenthaler's sophisticated, minimalist lighting.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet
Presenting world premiere of 'The Propelled Heart,' featuring singer Lisa FischerWhen: 5 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Nov. 15
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco