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Zen Ballet

At the beginning of Alonzo King’s

Three Stops on the Way Home — created in 1997 with a breathtaking commissioned score by Pharoah Sanders — two women question and answer each other through movements from a classical-ballet textbook. But their body weight is located in their kneecaps. They’re sinuous and slinky, and they’re doing "wrong" ballet.

Then a man (Xavier Ferla) enters. Boyish, with a curly mop of hair, when he essays a leap reminiscent of Le Spectre de la Rose, or Spartacus even, his body says, "I am Nijinsky." It’s a Russian thing. Yet he’s not showing off, the way some Russians do. He’s introspective — so much so that the women disappear, evaporate really. They seem to be visions in his head. Now the ballet is about his stop on the way home, rather than the one stop made together by the two women (Melanie Henderson and Debra Rose).

When King built LINES Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco in 1982, he was alerting us that he was an independent thinker. But up till now, his concerts have been relatively frustrating: You would see where he was headed, then watch him swerve off-target, presenting audiences with something that only narrowly missed being beautiful, meaningful, lasting and original.

King’s close calls were tantalizing enough that many dancegoers were willing to adopt a wait-and-see attitude — and his concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall on January 22 and 23 was payback for the faithful. The dancers were strong, individual, pretending to nothing. The ballets were solid, serious, approachable, communicating lines of meaning that, while non- narrative, could be followed from beginning to end.

King’s process relies on the subconscious. He feels his way into the work, and into a state of being, using the vibrations of musical tone and color, and the sheer energy of his dancers. It’s a Zen sort of classical ballet, and it takes a special breed to pull it off: dancers who can project ambiguity with confidence.

A good example of this came at the end of Three Stops, when Ferla beckoned to the two women to come out from the wings, lunging forward with his hand outstretched and — here’s the subtle kicker — turned down. We commonly assume that gesture, with its tucked and inarti culate fingers, is a sign of weakness. But Ferla’s intensity transformed the sign, and the women returned to the stage. What King repeatedly shows us is that energy can subvert the meaning of shapes, leaving us with something altogether ambiguous — and powerful.

King’s second piece, Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner? (1998), also provided many moments of electrifying epiphany. As the title implies, there was some sneaky wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing going on with respect to movement idioms. The lighting, the costumes, the music — by Zakir Hussain, who played and sang his mesmerizing compositions live from the pit — contributed to the dancers’ impression of silky kineticism. The hot dancing sent chills. Strange stuff looked familiar. Opposites attracted. You could hear the audience gasp: "Wow."

Peter Sellars is at it again. In his in

finite wisdom, he tapped Donald Byrd to make the dance for his East Los Angeles setting of Stravinsky’s The Story of a Soldier (L’Histoire du Soldat). Byrd’s duet for the Soldier (Alex Miramontes) and the Prin cess (Tiana Alvarez) was so sweet and perky and sexy, it turned the whole production away from the Devil (Omar Gomez) and the dark side — just as it needed to. Byrd introduced exactly the right notes of delicious bliss, as when Alvarez performed a series of small, quick jumps, or when she birthed eight babies from a black bag under her chair.

Byrd’s choreography worked wonderfully within the context of Sellars’ point about art in context. As Stravinsky originally intended, Sellars has made a Story of a Soldier that’s portable to the streets. He, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the small ensemble from the L.A. Philharmonic who collaborated on the January 21–24 Music Center production have suggested that their next step will be to take their work out into L.A.’s communities. It will be fascinating to see what happens to Sellars’ vision in that more intimate, engulfing context: how getting closer to the actors, musicians, dancer, narrator and Gronk’s huge, colorful paintings might swallow up even more of you.

The second annual "One Person Show

Festival" at the 2100 Square Feet theater, produced by Diana Castle, included a dance program with soloists Peter Wing Healey, Bonnie Oda Homsey and John Pennington.

If Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn had had a child, Healey would be it. In his Daughter of Earth, set to Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Walzer, the exotic filigree of his hands, the delicacy of his skips and hops and jigs, and then the thunderous weight — how can a dancer so large be so beautiful? St. Denis sought a spiritual response, and in some weird way so does Healey. And I believe him. I hear his desire to break out of his body and become smoke. I am held by his movement.

Pennington danced Bella Lewitzky’s Agitime: "The Achiever," with music by Larry Attaway. Clichéd and self-satisfied, it’s not one of my favorite Lewitzky pieces. Still, Pennington’s planes are so linear and clean it makes one realize how much Lewitzky cared about where one line ends and another begins, and how interesting it is to follow a dance while thinking this sort of architectural thought.

Among Pennington’s strengths is the fact that he can act, and indeed, all three dancers on the program presented works that demanded character. And all three of them delivered. Homsey’s performance of Wigman’s Witch Dance was a true pleasure to see up close; she’s one of those rare dancers who actually wear light. And she made you think about why some shapes — archaic, ancient, passed down through the blood — seem to resonate in our brain stems. (Like the Witch’s crippled, cupped foot, reminding us that she is a witch, and that there is a tradition of associating deformed features with evil.) And about why other shapes may not resonate in the same way.

The "One Person Show Festival" ran

for four weekends in January — the optimum way to have a festival, and to experience dance. But there are other ways. At the Fountain Theater, the fourth annual Festival of Solos and Duets presented a choreographer’s showcase over the weekend of January 22. Produced by Deborah Lawlor and Benita Bike, the occasion provided an opportunity for 10 choreographers to get their work staged without all the pressure to polish it up. Every city worth its salt needs a dance showcase like that.