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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lines Ballet and Lisa Fischer: The Propelled Heart

Posted By on Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge Kara Wilkes with singer Lisa Fischer - PHOTO BY QUINN B. WARTON
  • Photo by Quinn B. Warton
  • Kara Wilkes with singer Lisa Fischer

Lines Ballet director Alonzo King is known for encouraging his dancers to develop their singular artistic expression as well as their technical virtuosity. While watching The Propelled Heart, the company’s collaboration with Grammy-winning singer Lisa Fischer, my companion for the performance described Lines as “a company of soloists.” Although there were moments, particularly in the second half of the piece, when the company fit together to form some very striking sculptural tableaux, that assessment held true. The choreography seemed aimed at providing a series of peak experiences, rather than something integrated as a whole. But the undeniable verve and remarkable skill of Courtney Henry, Babtunji, Kara Wilkes, Laura O’Malley—again I feel I should note the whole company—held the audience in thrall. Fischer walked among the dancers as she sang, occasionally blessing them with her touch as well as her agile voice. The full house leapt to their feet at the end.

click to enlarge Jeffrey Van Sciver and Courtney Henry with singer Lisa Fischer - PHOTO BY QUINN B. WHARTON
  • Photo by Quinn B. Wharton
  • Jeffrey Van Sciver and Courtney Henry with singer Lisa Fischer

Though there was much to admire about The Propelled Heart, I couldn’t get over the sense that it lacked unity and fluidity. The program suggested narrativity — two acts, numbered scenes — yet there was no discernible arc of conflict and resolution. When Fischer sang We’ll Never Turn Back, I was struck by the word equality, by the evocation of the civil rights movement and the sense that the struggle is far from over. Yet I felt the piece alluded to the struggle, rather than using the stage as a place to make it manifest. At one point, Fischer began to speak into the microphone in low, vulnerable tones about feeling small. In that moment she abdicated her royal role, and though I appreciate the idea that the soul queen is human, I did not want to be told that she is. Fischer’s skill as a singer is such that she can easily evoke vulnerability without naming it. Similarly, Lines Ballet’s virtuosic dancers could engage very artfully with stillness without carving quite so many sculptures.

Last year I saw Lines Ballet’s collaboration with Bernie Krause, a master of field recording who provided the company with a gorgeous rain forest soundscape. Playing different creatures in a vibrant ecosystem, the dancers’ striking originality transmitted a sense of the raucous variability of living forms who each play a role in the health of the whole. Early in The Propelled Heart the dancers moved as animals, then approached Fischer, who touched them lightly on the head. Their movement changed after her touch, as if she had turned them human. In a note in the program, Alonzo King reflects on the role of our relationships to one another as a means for developing the heart, the location of spiritual attainment. Citing Sri Yukteswar, King explains that the propelled heart is working to learn the real nature of the universe. This impulse comes early in the heart’s evolution, and the doubt that arises spurs the aspirant to keep looking. The Propelled Heart may be seen through this lens as part of King and company’s ongoing, often thrilling, exploration of the possibilities inherent in collaboration, rather than as a finely tuned finished work.

The Propelled Heart, through Sunday, Nov. 15, at YBCA. 701 Mission, 415-978-2700.

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Elizabeth Costello


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