The Crisis of Vanishing Languages Explained in the Idioms of Dance

Lines Ballet at a dress rehearsal for 'Figures of Speech' about vanishing languages (Photo: RJ Muna/Lines Ballet)

There are more than 6,000 languages spoken around the world. But about every two weeks, one of them dies.

Bob Holman, a poet and filmmaker who made a documentary about endangered languages ranging from Basque (spoken in northern Spain) to the Hawaiian dialect of Ni’ihau calls this onrush of linguistic extinction “a global crisis of massive proportions."

“A language is an encyclopedia of the life that’s lived in that culture, in that part of the world,” Holman says. "To lose all these languages is to lose that original vitality of being in that place on earth.”

About a year ago, Holman’s work caught the attention of San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King, who has a history of working with unlikely collaborators on projects for his dance company, LINES Ballet.

King sees language itself as a form of dance, “Listen to the way people talk, the way we’re putting emphasis," he says. "There are voices that are erotic, there are voices that are cerebral, all of those are templates and colors.”

Yujin Kim and Robb Beresford at a dress rehearsal for Alonzo King Lines Ballet 'Figures of Speech'
Yujin Kim and Robb Beresford at a dress rehearsal for Alonzo King Lines Ballet 'Figures of Speech' (Photo: RJ Muna/Lines Ballet)

King's new work, Figures of Speechis based on Holman's work. It features a score in which music mixes with poetry spoken in 12 languages on the verge of vanishing.  These include Native American tongues like Ohlone and Maidu (both once spoken by California Indian tribes), Cheyenne and Comanche (plains Indians), Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews), and Basque.

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“The principal thing is to communicate ideas,” King says. “The dancer is using her body to create ideas."

This doesn’t exactly explain how King designs the movement of a dance about a vanishing language. When he hears a word in Maidu or Basque, does King see a dance step? It's hard to tell, as King's attempt to communicate his dance-making process using regular English words is as engaging as it is esoteric.

“If I said to you 'flower,' that first has to be an idea in my head, called the causal world," King says. "Then I take it into a vibration, which is energy. That’s called the astral world. And then I bring it into physical form, concrete. And that’s what we call this world. The natural world.”

Members of Alonzo King Lines Ballet rehearse their new piece 'Figures of Speech'
Members of Alonzo King LINES Ballet rehearse their new piece about dying languages, 'Figures of Speech.' (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

In rehearsal for Figures of Speech, King directs the dancers in what's become the LINES Ballet style, mixing classical poses with a contemporary dance physicality. He's a burly man, but moves with grace as he shows the dancers what he wants -- more oomph in one solo, a particular twist in another.

At one moment, a dancer bends at the waist and extends her arms, tracing a circle on the floor. The movement is a reference, perhaps, to how the disappearance of languages is a global crisis.

But trying to analyze the language of dance too closely, King says, “is to cut off real understanding.”

“Dance is thought, made visible,” King says. "And every language is a consciousness.”

Which brings us back to Holman, who says King brilliantly communicates abstract ideas derived from their conversations about language.

“I’m a poet," Holman says. "If poets don’t have language, what are we going to use to write our poems with?”

And how will we make, King might say, our dances?

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Alonzo King LINES Ballet performs 'Figures of Speech' at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, running Thursday, May 4, through Sunday, May 14. Tickets and more information here.

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