Shaolin Monks: Ballet

Lines BalletLast night I saw a wonderful sold-out performance of Alonzo King's Lines Ballet company doing their smash hit Shaolin Monks. Watch a clip here.

Much to my relief, the performers from Shaolin Temple USA were a pretext to show some great dancing, not the main attraction. It was a vehicle for exploring a theme.

The choreography is pure modern, in the sense that its single purpose is to display virtuosity. What I personally love about ballet is perfect technique, and these dancers have it. Their bodies exquisitely reveal the heights of muscular agility. The dancers muscles draw the torso inward and upward; creating a dense yet highly mobile structure for the expression of line and shape, time and gravity.

Interestingly, from a martial arts point of view, dancers don't move around their center. This is funny to me because I myself studied for two years with Alonzo King (20 years ago) and like all dance teachers, he teaches his dancers to "find their center." But in dance, one's center is the center of mass or the center of gravity. Ballet dancers are sometimes even more perceptive about space than martial artists are, but they don't differentiate qi and jing, they don't move qi around the body.  They spin like a dynamic top which can change its shape in motion, not like a gyroscope.

Alonzo is a wonderful teacher, encouraging and funny, he taught me to appreciate classical music with every cell in my body. Although I was always a jumper who loved jumping, my favorite part of class was Adagio, big and slow. (Small wonder that I ended up putting most of my eggs in the internal martial arts basket.) During the very last class I took with him, we were doing balance work at the barre (leg extensions and port de bras). I remember I was having a really good day, my balance was on, I was on my toe with my leg in an arabesque and my hand off the barre. Alonzo noticed, walked over, and whispered in my ear, "Great, but you look like a zombie."

It was very funny, but I thought to myself, "Ballet is turning me into a zombie!" My long term readers will probably remember that I love zombies; however, at that time I didn't want to become one. I realized that I didn't care enough about how I looked to be a ballet dancer, and I still needed to find out what I did care enough about.

Yesterday afternoon a group of about 25 of my Northern Shaolin students performed at their school. These 3rd and 4th graders rocked the house. One of the things I'm most proud of is that I've been teaching a number of Special Education students with autism and other disabilities. They have improved so much that you would not have known which students they were just from watching the show.

A few of my students are getting so good that I was disappointed. I wanted them to be more professional, I wanted them to put on the best possible show. They don't yet have the consistency of a professional, even if they do some things as well, or dare I say it, better than the "monks" from Shaolin Temple USA!

In a way it is not fair to compare them because Shaolin Temple USA is not authentic Shaolin. It's wushu. It lacks the weight of true Shaolin. (You may be thinking, come on man, who are you to say that? But remember, I started studying Shaolin in 1977, before Shaolin Temple was reconstituted.) The "monks" are at their best when they are in the air or rolling on the ground and doing tricks. Near the end of the piece a few individual "monks" did some elegant soft choreography that I would love to see again.

Forgive me, I'm too tough to be a proper critic, I care too much. I'm too inspired! If this show is coming through your town definitely check it out! It will inspire you too.

I also hope that this is the beginning of a trend--where dancers and martial artists see their common goals, aspirations, and history.

And Alonzo, if you are reading this-thank you.