Alonzo King's Lines Ballet

"BaAka: The People of the Forest"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

October 23, 2001
By Mary Ellen Hunt

Despite some beautiful and evocative moments, a perplexing interpretation of its sociopolitical agenda kept Alonzo King’s newest work, The People of the Forest from making a serious impact. This full evening-length piece represented an unusual and ambitious collaboration between LINES Contemporary Ballet and Nzamba Lela, a 16-member group from the BaAka Pygmies of the Central African rain forest. Notwithstanding an energetic effort by the dancers, the first half of the work failed to clearly outline the work’s intentions, and the second half became so pedantic as to be beating its audience over the head with "BaAka way: good, Western way: bad."

According to background material provided by LINES, the BaAka way of life encompasses a harmony between the people and their surroundings, between their existence and the art that makes up their lives. "…There is no distinction between art and any other part of their lives…Music and dance," we are told, "are not just a part of their culture; they are essential elements of their existence." How strange, then, to see them performing on a stage, in isolation from their existence. How peculiar to see this group of singer/dancers marginalized to the rear of the stage for most of the first act as the LINES dancers took front and center. In this setting, the BaAka seemed less a collaborative presence, and more a simple frame for the athletic perambulations of the Western dancers.

The People of the Forest opens with two singers singing a hunting song. Juxtaposed against this are the imperious Marina Hotchkiss, Maurya Kerr and Chiharu Shibata as a trio that seems to recall three graces, or three fates dancing in costumes that had the unfortunate effect of hiding their lines and resembling cannoli. Characters entered and left, some in more fortunate costumes, others, not so lucky. Christian Burns briefly made an appearance in a white shirt and pants, looking quite the part of a White Man lost in the jungle and Summer Lee Rhatigan, who alone in the company appears to have made the choreographic dynamics her own, danced a beautiful solo in the "Tole" section. One of the major highlights to the ballet though, was the sustained pas de deux for Shibata and Artur Sultanov. The controlled struggle between them, set to a lament about death, offered one of the few transcendent moments of the evening.

But problematic throughout the piece was frustration with where we were going on the evening’s journey. As each section ended, I was often left with the question, What are these dancers trying to tell us? I found myself asking continually if I were meant to see a story, or if, as in some conceptual art, the idea was the story, or was there no story at all? If the dance was related to the text of the songs, it was hardly ever apparent. If we were meant to be seeing pieces of the lives of the BaAka, it never looked like it.

Just as I settled into accepting that perhaps I was not meant to take any literal meaning at all from the dances, a definite agenda emerged in the second act, as Christian Burns returned in White Man clothes, and contained in a cloth-and-wire box that he carried with him and struggled both to emerge from, as well as to dance within. The obvious reading of this motif seemed to be that western (read: white) society has trapped itself in a box of its own making and is blinded to the natural "BaAka way" by the veil of this barrier. When several of the other dancers came forward to lift the box (i.e., the veil) away from him, he was not merely panicked, but contorted into impossibly uncomfortable shapes and spasms, apparently unable to accept the simplicity of the natural life. This seemed far too literal a concept to suddenly spring on an audience settling into the notion of an abstract mystical journey and furthermore, was so politically correct that it hurt.

King’s work has many laudable qualities, among them a willingness to work with risky material and a commitment to collaborative efforts with live music that is sadly missing in so many companies today. He’s taken chances with both of those ideas here. The People of the Forest highlights the polyrhythmic, polyphonic nature of the BaAka’s music. King’s nod to this characteristic feature is to layer his dancers in what might be called polychoric waves that serendipitously meet the music. Even without a social commentary, this kind of investigation into the relationship between dance and music would have been interesting.

Certainly The People of the Forest is filled with beautiful, eye-catching images, and some imaginative lighting design work by Axel Morgenthaler. King has always had a talent for creating a visually affecting moment. The startlingly lovely "Signs & Wonders" was filled with unforgettable imagery, notably the woman lifted to grace and chosen in the end as The One. In The People of the Forest several lush projections of leaves and of small silver fish onto the scrim while the dancers moved in shadow in front of it helped to create some stunning effects, although a real-time video projection of the dancers in electronic outlines was more distracting than successful.

In his biographical material, King asserts: "The bottom line for me is the spirit behind form: what is behind appearances and making that come forth… LINES is interested in the spirit that’s in all of us…" As a company, the dancers of LINES are beautiful, and stronger than ever in a technical sense. Particularly fine was a long solo from Xavier Ferla in the first act, as well as Maurya Kerr’s elegant ease and lengthy grace throughout. Nevertheless, the company’s work on the whole is still marked by a self-conscious inward focus that shuts them off from us, the audience, and from the very onstage musicians and dancers with whom they are collaborating.

Then too, I tried to identify what seemed so strangely uncomfortable about observing this whole procedure. Suddenly, I realized that it was the sort of imperial formalism of being an audience. If dance and music and involvement should be part of our way of life, part of our being, why were we sitting in a dark room watching them perform for us? We should have taken Nzamba Lela and LINES out to a club and had a good time dancing and singing together.


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Edited by Marie.

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