Sutra was a curious mix of reverence and virtuosity, lavish movement and intricate music — over an hour’s worth of changing forms. I found it intriguing and untrackable.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Sutra, the new dance by San Francisco’s Alonzo King, is saturated in the mystical sounds of Indian classical music. King collaborated with the celebrated tabla player Zakir Hussain for the work, the first-ever commission by World Music/CRASHarts. Given its east-coast premiere at the ICA on Friday night, the piece was a curious mix of reverence and virtuosity, lavish movement and intricate music — over an hour’s worth of changing forms. I found it intriguing and untrackable.
Sutra is a display of seemingly limitless movement inventions. The dancers share a movement vocabulary: an acrobatically flexible torso and the pronounced articulation of hip hop appended onto the strength and clarity of a ballet body. King’s choreography doesn’t look at all like a classical ballet. There’s hardly any air work and almost no ballet tricks. It doesn’t resemble Indian classical dance either.
Adji Cissoko begins it with a long solo of exaggerated curves and flexions, using her feet, in soft slippers, as if they were clad in pointe shoes. Following the rushes and sudden punctuations of the drums, her long, thin body rises and spins and stops, adorned with cryptic gestural poses. This is all in the first five minutes. When Michael Montgomery enters, they dance together, fusing and repositioning in slithery, unimaginable shapes.
During the solo and the duet, other dancers appear and monitor them in upstage lineups, making unobtrusive gestural shapes of their own. Eventually you see that lineups constitute a kind of theme, threading through the piece and holding together whatever deeper message it holds. Sometimes the lineup is strung out across the background; sometimes a chain of dancers makes its way through the space. Often it takes the form of a spread-out group that shares movement and can give birth to solos. But other times the larger group is set in deliberate contrast to solos, and the interplay becomes another theme.
When a strange bundle appeared unobtrusively upstage during Cissoko’s solo, it turned out to be three people wrapped tightly together and rolling across the floor. By the time this apparition got to center stage, another one had rolled in, and I was disconcerted at having had my attention drawn away from the intricacies of the solo. After a time, the bundles undid themselves, and the trios unfolded into strings of dancers lying atop each other on their backs. The strings became shuffling lines of people.
So the choreographic scheme gave the group two functions, to serve both as a framing lineup, like a corps de ballet, and as a matrix that could give rise to individual expression. In several later scenes a large group would be dancing simultaneous different phrases, coming together into unison movement without emphatic cues and at other times surrounding one outstanding member. By the end of the dance, nearly all 12 dancers had at least one small solo.
With all this going on, it was quite a while into the dance before I noticed that sometimes — maybe all the time — each dancer in a group was following a part of the musical accompaniment, which consisted of layered rhythms and sonic textures. The musicians were seated upstage, almost invisible behind a scrim under very low lighting, and I couldn’t make out exactly how this two-man ensemble was producing the storms of gorgeous sound. Hussain drummed and tapped and scraped on the tablas set out in front of him. Sabir Khan played the sarangi, a small but complex instrument that can sound like a sliding, micro-tuned violin. I think both men were producing vocals as well as using small percussion instruments.
When the piece had its world premiere in San Francisco a few weeks ago, it had a large set piece that resembled a pile of rocks. This wasn’t seen at the ICA, I imagine due to the limited performing space there. Though the dancing space was bare, Sutra was visually detailed and even challenging. With the dancers filling and emptying the space, the unusual movement, and the varying relationships between dancers and music, there was plenty going on. Many changes of odd but glamorous costumes (by Robert Rosenwasser), and dramatic lighting (designed by Scott Bolman and David Finn) provided visual elements of their own.
In some ways, you could think of Sutra as a pure-movement piece. I’m sure there was a deeper meaning in the traditional Hindu music and texts the program referenced, but this wasn’t something I could access. The movement itself didn’t have the self-evident meaning that can often be “read” in modern dances. Still, theatrical and dramatic images emerged, if not any one overall meaning.
I often thought of animals that shed their skin to emerge in a different stage of development: the bundled bodies that separated and formed snakelike processions. The dancers acquired a stretchy, filmy overshirt to their costumes, which they could manipulate to change their appearance. In another section, a man dragged in a large heavy bundle and deposited it on the floor. When the bundle was opened, it yielded a pile of miscellaneous cloth. After a primitive-seeming fight, each dancer acquired a piece of cloth and they developed a kind of celebration dance, flinging the cloths in the air.
Among the many contradictions in the piece: despite sharing a movement language, the men’s dancing was grounded, while the women looked much lighter. Despite the many parts for individuals, nothing felt egocentric. And although the duets usually involved lots of lifting and skin-to-skin contact, the attraction between partners was more strategic than erotic.
After an hour or so, the dance shifted gears. The five women, who had taken down their hair, danced together for the first time, as if conducting some kind of ritual. This struck me as yet another mystery, a phase in a creation that was going to go on mutating for all time.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.