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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 25, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 04
Alonzo King Lines Ballet's 'Figures of Speech' a poignant reflection on endangered languages
Arts & Entertainment
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Alonzo King Lines Ballet's 'Figures of Speech' a poignant reflection on endangered languages

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

UW WORLD DANCE
'FIGURES OF SPEECH'
ALONZO KING LINES BALLET
MEANY CENTER FOR
THE PERFORMING ARTS
January 10


In this fascinating dance program the Alonzo King Lines Ballet company performed twenty short dances to the recorded sounds of dying, endangered, or extinct languages, such as Ainu from Kuril and Tsishima Islands, Mountain Maidu from the Sierra Mountains, Sámi from Northern Scandinavia, and Ladino from Jerusalem. Also included were Native American languages: Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa. The healthiest, least endangered languages included were those with provincial status: Euskera from the Basque countries and Hawai'ian from the Aloha state.

The audience was given three ways of encountering these languages. A projection on the back scrim showed a white line on a black background that would take the shape of the written or phonetic representation of the language moving in a single line that - sadly, effectively - was swallowed up by a moving cloud behind it, as though the language itself were being eaten alive. At the same time we heard recordings of the language being voiced, either by a living speaker or in scratchy archival recordings of last speakers. The dancers themselves enacted a kind of translation of these languages - not literally, I suspect, but emotively - as though the language could feel itself weakening and dying.

A lone woman opened the concert to the sounds of Ainu, which has only ten native speakers on Kuril and Tsishima Islands and an ethnic population (presumably living elsewhere) of 15,000. She entered the stage dancing what was clearly a lonely, anguished expression of loss that wove beautifully with the recording that the audience could not understand. The effect was profound: No one can understand me, and when I die, no one will understand the voice of my ancestors. Of course, this is not strictly true because if there were not linguistic anthropologists working to preserve and understand dying languages we wouldn't have this much.

Happily, some languages can be revived and reclaimed by L2 speakers. As the program explained, L1 are native speakers, and L2 are speakers who are not native but who speak in the locale of the language. The best example of a recovered language is Hawai'ian, which is the official language of the state (the only state that has an official language) and which is a required subject in the schools. Euskera is the most robust with an ethnic population of over two million and never needed to be reclaimed. Its endangerment, however, is from being overwhelmed by French and Spanish in its traditional territories. At a conference in Barcelona some years ago I listened to impassioned appeals by Basque-speakers for the preservation of its culture and languages - and noticed that all the street signs are in both Spanish and Euskera. Using dance to evoke the dilemma of language preservationists while making music of the words themselves is a brilliant idea. The twenty short dances in this program - solos, trios, small groups and the full company of eleven dancers - expressed the emotions surrounding the pride and anxiety of cultures losing their connection to their own pasts as their languages languish. The feeling is a bit like (if I may make a local comparison to another phenomenon of vanishment) seeing Old Seattle disappear inexorably under a forest of cranes and high-rises. That sinking, confused feeling some of us get trying to find our way around when our old landmarks are gone - the homes of our memories - is something akin to the feelings evoked in this program.

The dances themselves were flowing and energetic, performed by beautifully powerful men and women of great diversity, which underscores the universality of the language groups represented and those not represented but still doomed. Linguists believe that 6,000 to 7,000 endangered languages will be extinct by the year 2100, so Alonzo King and company have foregrounded an important and melancholy problem. It was wise to choreograph languages that have managed to survive, along with those that may yet have a chance, so that the loss of so much human culture would not produce a hopeless sense of human extinction.

The program asks, but can't really answer, a serious question: How will the loss of these languages affect humanity and the memory of human wisdom and accomplishment? In ballet terms, there is another question that occurred to me: How can so many languages be represented by a single dance language - the dialect, if you will, of a single choreographer? In the best of all possible worlds, this project would belong to twenty choreographers, each one taking a language and presenting it in their own very different movements. Then we could begin to see in dance the difference and diversity of these cultures. As it was, the dances were thoughtful, full-bodied, powerful, and committed. King uses wide stances low to the ground, engaged facial expressions and intricate group movements. Taken together with the languages flowing around them, the twenty dances were moving and effective.

Still, one language is hard put to express a variety of languages, but instead can only express the complexity of a culture and the sorrow of losing its language. After a while, the voices of the already-lost languages became the most poignant element of the dance - the old women with their shaky chanting telling us about lives and legends we can no longer understand.

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