The cliché about ballet dancers is that they are “light on their feet,” that they “float” and “soar” across the stage. I’ve always felt the opposite to be more interesting: nobody reveals a more solid connection to the ground. Even if balancing only en pointe, a dancer looks more immovably earthbound than most of us would passed out on our bellies.
Yet this is not something one can really perceive in a live performance: that special solidity gets upstaged by movement, grace, the illusion of weightlessness that is the dancer’s currency. But in a photograph you can see it: the imperturbable lines that root the body to the earth, gravity visibly manifest in stony calves and meaty feet.
San Francisco-based modern ballet company Lines has always had the most fascinating publicity photography, combining the talents of beloved Bay Area photographers like Marty Sohl and RJ Muna, resident designers Sandra Woodall and Robert Rosenwasser, and artistic director Alonzo King, whose eye for choreography and attitude favors the androgynous and athletic over the pretty. Its new book of photographs (interspersed with somewhat esoteric axioms by King himself) is a treasure trove of images by Muna and Sohl, many never-before published, all revealing why Lines has come to represent the most avant-garde of an essentially avant-garde artform, as well as why the two photographers’ work is so much more than commercial. In its pages, dancers grapple with each other and with their own bodies, stretching and folding in on themselves, defying the neat gender roles of classical ballet in unexpected postures. Stand-alone images are scattered amongst series of five or six images that show the progression from one movement to another, allowing us to see the subtle shadowplay of tensing and relaxing muscles as the models change position, or shift their weight from one leg to the other, or change lead. There are a few printing problems (at least in my copy), with some images appearing a bit “dusty.” Other images could benefit by being shown at a larger size within the page layout or by not being printed across the gutter, but in all, Alonzo King Lines Ballet is a visual treasure that, unlike the performance itself, one can take home, and return to again and again. It is not simply a coffeetable book for dance aficionados; it is a reflection on the human form and the vastness of its language.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.