by Elizabeth Clark-Stern copyright February 2012
In her book ALCHEMY, Marie-Louise Von Franz writes that as we get closer to the Self, C.G. Jung’s term for that divine essence within us, we are able to recognize connection, meaning, and the presence of soul in the world.
I came upon a striking example of this at a dance concert in Seattle’s Meany Hall. Alonzo King graced the stage with two offerings from his LINES ballet company: DUST AND LIGHT, and SCHEHRAZADE, the latter with a new score by Zakir Hussain, after Rimsky-Korsakov. In the program, Alonzo King wrote, “My intention was to grapple with the metaphysical meaning behind Scheherazade and present that meaning in its essence. Scheherazade is the symbol of the savior. She weaves tales not to save her own life, but to save humanity from its unending retributive response to injury.”
As I read these words, the archetypal was there, pulsing before me on the pages of this program, before the performance had even begun. I recalled the story of Scheherazade. A king, wounded in love, has his revenge by beheading six thousand virgins the morning after he marries them. Scheherazade, the daughter of the prime minister, offers herself in marriage, in hopes that she can stop this carnage of the feminine, and redeem the soul of the King.
The redemption of the world is a very ambitious enterprise. We have some striking examples of this in our modern world. Three women from politically ravaged countries won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Thousands of women marched in protest in Egypt, sparked by a U-Tube video of a woman being stripped and beaten by Egyptian soldiers. Arguably these are modern day Scheherazades. We can watch their struggle, and, through art, we can all participate in the symbolic redemption of the world.
In the LINES BALLET program we read, “Alonzo King calls his works ‘thought structures’ which are created by the manipulation of energies inherent in matter, through laws that govern the shapes and movement of everything that exists.”
What does this look like? Fluid, human vulnerability, irrationality, beauty, strength, madness, coming together and pulling apart, portrayed in the line of bodies, and, in the stage setting: the wafting line of a cloud of dust, the undulating line of white drapery suspended in the air.
I find it impossible to translate into mere words the experience of seeing the LINES Company on stage. I could say that for two blessed hours, I felt suspended in a sacred, churning, intimate, passionate, magnificently luminous world. The duet between Scheherazade and the King, portrayed in movement the struggle so many people feel to open their hearts to the intimate Other. She meets his resistance with her creativity, strength, and love. The wound in his heart is healed, and he makes her his Queen.
After the performance my friend and I stayed for a colloquy with Alonzo King, a modestly dressed African American who strode onto the stage as if it were his living room. Indeed, quite literally, it is.
“Does anyone know anything about struggle?” he asked the audience.
A knowing laughter erupted.
“We humans are creatures of duality. Inside each of us is ‘friend’, and ‘enemy’. These war inside of us for who is going to dominate our consciousness. We better hope ‘friend’ wins.”
When asked about his creative process, Alonzo said that it begins with a focused intention. You must have a passionate interest in what you do, horses or chess, or school teaching – “whatever it is, if you are truly deeply attending to it, and do it over time, something happens—“ He drew an arch in the air above his head with his long dark fingers, “Creativity comes from the super-conscious. After you work with diligent, focused attention, if you are lucky, something happens. Images come, ideas, thoughts. You realize the creation comes from the super-conscious; is not you. Oh, you put your name on it, but you know that is a lie. It comes down from on high, a gift, but it only comes if you work very hard.”
He was asked why he chose to be a choreographer. He said in high school he was interested in many things, and chose dance because he knew he had to choose something he could do until his “crotchety old age”…”I chose dance, because I knew it would give me the most joy.”
How does he choose his dancers? “We have schools all over, and we are always holding auditions, and beyond the obvious that the dancer must be so technically skilled they don’t have to think about it, I look for people who have strong character, who are fearless. In the end it is not about ‘can you move your leg higher?’, it is about ‘can you conquer your fear?’ ‘can you overcome anxiety’? I am drawn to people of high character. Isn’t that what being a human being is all about?”
Of the process of making Scheherazade, he said, “The music, the dance, are two babies. Zakir and I met and talked, and he went off and wrote, and I did some movements with the dancers, and we came back together and we knew we must create a story of the Divine Mother, and how the King was transformed because he was washed in Scheherazade’s consciousness. It had to work on every level: emotional, sensory, spiritual, every aspect common to human experience, so that the audience comes away transformed.”
How was I transformed? I walked to my car, noticing everything around me on this crisp, autumn night. Every golden leaf in the gutter pulsed. I felt a respect and awe for every passer-by. I was in the presence of what Jungian analyst Robert Johnson calls, “The Golden World”. I recalled Von Franz’s words in ALCHEMY, “If one is in true harmony with the Self, there is a feeling of absolute happiness and peace… for feeling so close to the Self becomes the indestructible thing. Naturally, one loses that, time and again.”
Because we lose it, because it is both indestructible and forever slipping away, we need the transcendent power of art, to bring us home, again, and again. I am grateful for artists like Alonzo King, who bring us with him, to the threshold of grace.