Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Animal sounds become music for world premiere of magical ballet

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★★

“Biophony” dancers include (from left) Robb Beresford, Babatunji and Michael Montgomery of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton.

Sound expert Bernie Krause (left) and choreographer Alonzo King do a joint interview.

Bernie Krause recording in the wild.

Bernie Krause’s been my friend more than 25 years.

In case you don’t recognize it, that statement’s a disclaimer.

A necessity — because the world premiere of “Biophony,” an exceedingly inventive Alonzo King LINES Ballet created collaboratively with Bernie, just exhilarated me.

Which I’m sure would have happened had I never heard of either of them.

“Biophony” is, simultaneously, aural and visual.

But my reaction was visceral.

Without warning, “Biophony” stripped away my desire and ability to experience it intellectually.

I’ve used the word brilliant in reviews before. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d had the foresight to know I’d need it for this three-way alliance (the third partner being English composer Richard Blackford, whose instrumentation has been tapered).

The experimental 38-minute piece opens with the clear chirping of an American cricket.

But the nine-movement work is performed without protracted breaks so I wasn’t always sure when I was being transported to the Amazon or Tanzania or the Arctic to hear a cornucopia of baboons and orangutans and chimpanzees, geese and ducks and exotic birds, wolves and pigs and giraffes, humpback whales, frogs, bees, creaking branches, waves and rain and thunder.

Even after reading the extensive program notes, I wasn’t always certain what critters or environmental elements were making the sounds I was hearing.

And I missed a lot.

A second, third or fourth hearing could be beneficial.

was sure, though, that the natural sounds became incredibly melodic and worked divinely as a symphonic composition.

I was also positive Alonzo’s magical ballet blended perfectly with those sounds — a ballet that featured 11 dancers fashioning (on terra firma, sea and air) unconventional creature-like movements.

Bernie’d recorded the sounds in the wilds — jungle, tundra, wherever.

Alone mostly.

And in concert, so to speak, with the likes of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

Almost ­ — after his first ecological recording in Muir Woods and his initial soundscape installation in 1983 for the California Academy of Sciences — 5,000 hours of field recordings of 15,000 species in their natural habitats over a 50-year span.


Enter “Biophany,” which consists of handpicked highlights from that collection — soundscapes of animals in self-contained ecosystems.

A unique orchestra-chorus.

In a KQED interview the day of the opening at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Alonzo said, “You want people’s…hearts to be opened.”

They were.

In an Exploratorium conversation, he said of his work: “I don’t want it to look like choreography…If it [does], it’s not working.”

He succeeded at that, too.

Alonzo’s choreography is impressionistic and impressive.

Ditto the minimalist costuming (diaphanous wisps can be found hither and thither).

And since the set is basically a black backdrop with tantalizing ambiance and floor mosaics designed by Axel Morgenthaler’s lights, audiences can easily imagine themselves in sundry milieus.

Alonzo, who’s dreamed up close to 200 ballets for the troupe he founded in 1982, conspicuously let the dancers be themselves (alternately original, acrobatic and graceful).

Bernie, meanwhile, mulled if audiences “would get” his underlying message — “an elegy and eulogy” for natural environs that are vanishing because of man-made intrusions.

Time will be the jury.

I must note, however, that ballet purists — especially those whose tastes are limited to productions like “Swan Lake”  — may be unable to wrap their minds around this breakthrough effort.

Is “Biophony” completed? Conceivably not.

In an email to me, Bernie wrote, “With the curtain [going] up in five hours, I’m still in the process of making changes.”

The previous night, after grueling deliberation, he’d eliminated the elephants.

Bernie’s normal conversation often contains heady words unfamiliar to most: Bioacoustician. Geophony. Anthropophony.

No matter. We’ll stay friends even if I don’t fully grok his vocabulary.

Our friendship can’t compare, anyhow, to his with my wife, which dates 62 years to their Detroit school days together.

But back to now.

In a 22-minute prelude, seven members of the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players played short pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel while King’s company feverishly blanketed and owned the stage.

Bernie earlier had voiced a tongue-in-cheek fear “Biophony” might replicate the opening of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” — incite tomatoes being thrown.

I saw no fruit hit the stage.

But I did feel whitecaps of applause as the audience — partially stunned by the brilliance of the work, partially stunned by a somewhat abrupt ending — rose to give “Biophony” an extended standing ovation.

Biophony” will run through April 12 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St. (at Third), San Francisco. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees, 5 p.m. Sundays. Special gala performance, 6 p.m. Saturday, April 11. Tickets: $20 to $65. Information: or 1-415-978-2787.

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