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Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, in Performance with the Shaolin Monks

Pliés with Ch'i

In one of this superb works’ most simple and beautiful moments (and there are many such moments) Alonzo King delivers the goods straight up: two young men share the stage, each masters of radically different disciplines of motion, and the stark aesthetic contrast is as amazing as the joyful way in which they discover and explore the richness of their common ground. Western ballet as practiced by the LINES ballet, and martial arts as practiced by the Shaolin Monks could hardly be more different in their history and purpose, yet in this world premiere work, titled "Long River High Sky", Mr. King manages to go far beyond a superficial East-meets-West juxtaposition, and has brokered a deeply moving artistic collaboration between both disciplines, to the obvious delight of audience and performers alike.

Shaolin kung fu has its origins in sixth-century China, and is practiced by Chan Buddhist monks who build up their qi (or ch’I) with their meditation and release it through the practice of martial arts. The moves are compact, fluid, precise and full of poetry. The monks in this piece appear to have the forces of mountains, rivers and thunder flowing through their bodies. But despite the ethereal abstract mental imagery in its underlying philosophy (references to celestial bodies, animals, and natural forces are common) kung fu was intended to make men into efficient fighting machines. Throughout its very long history, the discipline evolved into many different schools and influenced many other forms of martial arts, like Japanese karate, but the Shaolin version appears to retain the aura of authenticity in the popular imagination.

On the other hand, ballet as we know it today, a performance based art form as opposed to a participatory and/or narrative dance form, evolved from highly ritualized European court dance: it was Louis XIV’s Académie Royale de la Danse (which is now the Paris Opera Ballet), established in 1661, that set the standards still in place today. Other countries developed their own forms of ballet, especially Russia, Denmark, Italy and the U.S. Exquisite and rigorous in its own way, ballet is still all about love, desire, romantic nature worship, court intrigue, and many other things, but it’s rarely about war or violence.

In Long River High Sky, Mr. King, who has prolifically collaborated with a diverse group of world artists including Hamza El Din, the Nubian oud master; Danny Glover, the American actor; India’s Zakir Hussain; and Japanese classical composer Somei Satoh, highlights the bold contrast in styles between ballet and kung fu by while simultaneously allowing the artists to learn from each other. The effect is pure magic.

At first the difference between the two aesthetics makes the work seem strangely lopsided -- the monks’ stage presence is completely free of the ballet dancer’s exaggerated swagger and lilt. The way they walk has its own swagger, that of the fighting man, but they are decidedly somehow more centered and confident in their bodies than the dancers. This impression is all the more dramatic because the ballet dancers, like most ballet dancers, are fully muscled and cut, elegant and graceful. You know they’ve probably been training just as hard as the monks for most of their young lives. Yet almost all their motions are completely different than the monks'.

The monks typically stroll on stage, face the audience with palms together in front, do their routines, conclude with a slight bow, and saunter offstage like warriors -- mission accomplished. Meanwhile the ballet dancers intertwine their sinuous lines around the monks, a fluid and floral human calligraphy circumnavigating a graceful but lethal pit bull efficiency. Then, gradually, through a carefully modulated sequence of pieces, the story begins to change and the monks absorb ballet moves while the dancers absorb the kung fu.

This unusual work lacks the pyrotechnics and show-off technical moves typical of ballet, concentrating instead on making an emotional connection with the audience through beautifully modulated gesture, simple, powerful set design, and flowing, eloquent ensemble pieces. Duets, trios, and quartets, as well as full company pieces, are all exquisite. Eventually the company comes to a full blend of ballet and kung fu, with the best of each flourishing.

The monks’ group includes the ten-year old triplets Shi BaoHu, Shi HuHu, and Shi LongHu. Accepted to study at the Shaolin temple at the age of five, the boys now live in San Francisco with the rest of the group, which is the only group authorized by the Shaolin temple to represent Shaolin traditions outside of China. While highly skilled and disciplined, their performances are joyful and confident, filled with sequential back flips, head spins, full splits from standing position, and windmill-like arm spins.

The music for the work is particularly notable. Composed and arranged by Miguel Frasconi, Hong Wang, and Alonzo King, and performed live by the group Melody of China (comprised of Hong Wang, Shenshen Zhang, and Wanpeng Guo), it provides a powerful, evocative aural environment for the work which draws heavily on traditional Chinese instrumentation but incorporates Western aleatory and tonal elements. I was reminded at times of the work of the American composer Harry Partch, with its gongs and microtonal melodic structure. The percussion, use of electronics, the unmistakable lines of the pipa, and the beautiful texture of the other traditional Chinese instruments all combine to compliment the dancing perfectly, and the live performance has the advantage that the musicians can cue their expression and dynamics to the dancers (not just vice versa) in real time.

I often wonder about how highly evolved art forms in any culture can continue to evolve, especially with what we often euphemistically call globalization and its attendant, if unintentional, cultural imperialism. Part of the problem is that the more evolved an art form is, the longer it takes any individual to master it. Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar master, for example, reportedly spent several years just learning to hold the sitar before he learned to play it. And over the centuries, some art forms become so perfect, perhaps, that the idea of changing them seems to be counterproductive.

Given this performance, and the respective age of each tradition, one might conclude that American ballet represents the more malleable of the two. Perhaps not. But due to the genius of Mr. King, the artists from traditions on both sides of the Pacific have come together to create something that shows a fertile commonality while allowing each the best of its unique qualities. As artistic and cultural collaboration, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, in Performance with the Shaolin Monks
at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
runs through April 22
Tickets: $20-65