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In LINES Ballet's New Work, Mickey Hart's Music is Weakest Link

April 19, 2011

Choreographer Alonzo King, architect Christopher Haas and the Grateful Dead's famous drummer collaborate on world premiere performance

Choreographers have long collaborated with visual artists —but the world of contemporary Western dance seems to be particularly enamored lately of architects. Merce Cunningham’s 2009 dance piece, “Nearly Ninety” featured designs by Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue and in 2010 for its “Architecture of Dance” program, the New York City Ballet commissioned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to create sets for a handful of new pieces.

That Alonzo King chose to couch the title of his new dance piece, “Triangle of the Squinches,” in architecture-speak (a “squinch” being a tool to make a square room able to host a dome) testifies to the intimacy of the relationship between the choreographer’s steps and the San Francisco architect Christopher Haas’ set design for the work.

“Triangle of the Squinches” largely came from the work of three people – King, Haas and Mickey Hart. A longtime drummer for The Grateful Dead, Hart is undeniably the biggest name of the three. Yet his musical score very much plays third wheel in this particular artistic marriage.

Haas provides King’s powerful corps of dancers with a pair of tantalizing physical landscapes with which to interact. In the first half of the piece, a rectangular frame strung from top to bottom with a dense fringe of white elastic strings dominates the otherwise bare Novellus Theater stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In the second half, a honeycomb-like wall made of tessellating, textured bricks replaces the initial structure.

The two objects create contrasting moods when activated by the dancers. Alternately bringing to mind tall grasses undulating in a light breeze, plucked harp strings and a spider’s web, the vertical elastic cords on the first structure are permeable to the eye and pliable to the touch. The dancers weave in and out of the strings, get tangled up in them and pull them in every direction.

The second structure is much more rigid in comparison. Calling the horizontal rather than vertical plane to attention with its rows of static bricks, the wall provides a strong surface upon which the dancers climb, hang and sit.

In combination, the architectural objects and choreography suggest a largely symbiotic relationship between human beings and their physical environment. There’s something benign about the way in which the dancers interact with the architectural objects on stage. When a performer collapses into the elastic strings, another supports her weight. When a dancer walks shimmies his way along the brick wall, hands appear from behind the structure to gently guide his feet to the foot-holes.

In the first half, as if mimicking the parallel lines of the strings, the performers rarely touch. They observe each other quietly from a distance and mostly execute King’s steps – a combination of melting, earthbound movements with flexed feet and pristinely-elongated geometric arabesques and pirouettes – solo. After the intermission, the wall bricks set the tone for the choreography, in which dancers in tight-knit trios and duets press flesh to flesh as if trying to inhabit each other’s skin.

But there’s a sinister undertow to the dance-architecture collaboration in “Triangle of the Squinches.” With performers frequently peering out through the gaps between the strings and bricks, Haas’ homely habitats start to resemble prisons. This less than bucolic quality expresses itself fully at the at the end of the work, when company members trundle an enormous primeval-looking wheel structure across the stage as a dancer windmills his right arm around as fast as he can in a frustrated gesture of forward motion while another dancer holds him back. If the appearance of the tank-like wheel suggests “human progress” driven by technology, then the dancer’s hectic arm gesture, reminiscent of a car spinning its tires helplessly in mud, represents the drawback of civilization and a yearning for a simpler time and space.

King, Haas and Hart supposedly developed “Triangle of the Squinches” in tandem. Yet what subtle meanings can be derived from the predominantly abstract work come as a result of the deep interplay between the architecture and the dance. Hart’s music shows scant evidence of the collaborative process. The mostly ambient score, with its musique concrète-inspired vocabulary of samples from experiments that the composer has recently been undertaking with sounds recorded from outer space, lacks definition beyond isolated interjections from an Indian flute and drum.

Besides a gradually escalating rhythmic drive as the work builds towards its climax, the music mostly seems to have little to do with the movement and design.

The most arresting choreographic explorations of architectural space don’t lose sight of music – which, ultimately, carries the closest kinship to dance of all the art forms. In Brenda Way’s “Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II” which premiered last month as part of the ODC’s 40th anniversary “Dance Downtown” season, Jay Cloidt’s atmospheric musical score helped to breath multi-dimensional life into the simple geometrical forms expressed by the set design and choreography.

If Hart should ever attempt to work with dancers again in future, he should consider consulting with Cloidt. George Bernard Shaw once defined dance as “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music” — a role that has been supplanted in this piece by the architecture. It’s fine for the three art forms of dance, music and architecture to riff off each other but the design elements should never eclipse the music entirely.



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