A group of dancers across a stage, a background of sea.
The LINES Ballet dancers performing in Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled. Photo by Jamie Lyons. Visuals by Richard Misrach

In the house of Alonzo King are many mansions, and the room he’s prepared for his latest manifestation of beauty was inspired by a trip to paradise. 

The San Francisco choreographer and his LINES Ballet company are back at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Blue Shield of California Theater with “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled,” a delectable spring season premiere that offers a potent antidote for troubled times. The LINES engagement runs through April 23.

It’s fair to describe the new work as a dream collaboration, and not just because it brings King together with influential Berkeley photographer Richard Misrach for the first time. With a career spanning half a century, Misrach is renowned for his collections capturing desert landscapes and politically charged themes like “Border Cantos,” a project with experimental composer Guillermo Galindo that explores the oft-overlooked territory in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

A dancer in front of a mural of the world
Joshua Francique performs in ‘Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled.’ Photo by Jamie Lyons. Visuals by Richard Misrach

When a friend brought Misrach to see a LINES performance, “it was suggested I do the sets for a production, like Rauschenberg and Hockney did all these sets,” he said. San Francisco choreographer Molissa Fenley had asked him about collaborating some four decades ago. “I declined then, and I declined again. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Even after he was blown away by the LINES performance, he didn’t see a path forward, at least until the wee hours of the night, “when I had this very specific dream of specific things happening in these specific landscapes in the desert, doing these pieces I had just seen,” Misrach said. “And I saw the dancers with me in the desert doing a new dance. In the morning, I wrote it down and sent it to them, and Alonzo got back to me immediately and said, ‘let’s do it.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.”

Rather than taking the company to the desert, Misrach ended up working with the LINES dancers in Hawaii on a multi-day photo shoot, and a spirit of aloha suffuses “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled” (a Biblical reference from John: 14). With video by Clayton Talmon de l’Armée, video and costume design by LINES co-founder and Creative and Executive Director Robert Rosenwasser, and music by Grammy Award-winning vocal powerhouse Lisa Fischer (who floats on and off stage as she sings observing the dancers), the ballet unleashes King’s exceptionally athletic dancers in a series of company settings and duos amidst striking back projections that portray or evoke natural forces. Fischer’s mostly wordless vocals enhance the dream states as upside-down waves break over the stage. 

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Conversations with King tend toward the philosophical, as he sees dance as an activity that encompasses just about every human endeavor. Working with Misrach expanded the company’s purview. The fact it unfolded in a lush tropical setting became a central component of the collaboration. The dancers seemed to inhabit the various landscapes evoking waves and wind, ocean creatures, birds and other tropical denizens. A duet between Batatunji and Madeline DeVries distilled King’s aesthetic, with his surprising juxtapositions, sweeping extensions and rapid contractions set in an aqueous environment. 

A man on the left and two dancers on the right.
Lisa Fischer, Babatunji Johnson, and Shuaib Elhassan perform in ‘Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled.’ Photo by Jamie Lyons Visuals by Richard Misrach

“Richard goes to Hawaii regularly, and he took us to some special spots,” King said, noting that the collaboration felt like a sympathetic dialogue. “Photography is dancing, and dancing is speaking. They’re both languages. When you’re looking at someone’s work, you’re looking at what’s being said, what they are pointing out. They’re showing you things that you may not have perceived.”

Running about 75 minutes, “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled” deploys only a tiny fraction of the images Misrach shot during the three days he worked with the LINES dancers. It’s likely that the collaboration will have a life far beyond the company. He ended up capturing about 2,000 images, which is not his usual approach. 

“I had a callus on my finger, which has never happened before,” he said. “They never stopped moving. We did Cliff Ballet, Shadow Ballet, all these different series. I’ll be editing for another year.”

If the new collaboration generates a good deal of “Let Not Your Heart’s” frisson, it’s King’s ongoing work with Fischer that provides the connective tissue holding the ballet together. She presides over the production like a goddess, robed and becalmed. Her musical score, which alternates between beatific soundscapes, percussive interludes and spacious jazz refrains by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Teddy Charles, provide a counterpoint to the tantalizing décor.

Over some four decades, King has carved out a creatively charged realm defined by on-stage collaborations with master musicians, from tabla genius Zakir Hussain and the Kronos Quartet to jazz pianist Jason Moran and tenor sax titan and Charles Lloyd. Fischer has been one of his primary muses in recent years, and her score (with sensitive sound design by Philip Perkins) maintains elegant order when the full company is at its most kinetic. 

For King, creating a ballet is about building an entire environment that honors its own intentions, not “a house that is huge and rococo and filled with unnecessary things,” he said. “Rather, an igloo, perfectly connected, an entirety that works in its environment. The question is, how do we see? And what do we see? We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

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1 Comment

  1. Beautifully written Mr. Gilbert. Thank you for sharing the largeness of your heart mind, and ability to see.

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