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George Mason University

Alonzo King LINES Ballet Fights to Preserve Language

January 14, 2020

Alonzo King Lines Ballet

According to a report of UNESCO, of the world’s 7,111 languages, 40% are now endangered. The Alonzo King LINES Ballet Company is hoping to shed light on the fragility of some endangered languages and the plight of the speakers in an evocative new evening-length work, Figures of Speech, Saturday, January 25 at 8 p.m.

Choreographed by Alonzo King, Figures of Speech uses the human body to give an entirely new perspective on human voices from remotes corners of the globe on the verge of being silenced. Drawing on the work of poet and filmmaker Bob Holman, co-founder of the Endangered Language Alliance and leading advocate of linguistic preservation movement, the performance uses an acoustic backdrop recorded by Holman of untranslated poetry and songs from twelve endangered languages. Threatened languages featured in Figures of Speech 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.

Holman himself summarized this work’s motive by saying, “We are so in awe of the power of the book that we've forgotten the power of sound and the magic of sense nested in sound. Everybody's fighting for the preservation of species, but who's fighting for the preservation of languages, which are in fact the souls...of culture itself?” Holman has also produced a documentary Language Matters in which he asserts that the tendentious state of the majority of the world’s languages, spoken by ethnic & cultural minorities, is “a global crisis of massive proportions.”

Just how big is the crisis? Academics theorize that up to 7,000 languages currently spoken worldwide will be entirely without any speakers by the end of this century. Scholars are working to preserve the words and grammar for future linguistic study. However, for many indigenous rights activists, the moral gravity of the loss of a language is more significant than syntax, accents, and sounds, for language holds keys to history, values, culture, identity, and community.

Through the expressive movement of the dancers and an enigmatic soundscape of poetry and song recited in languages with very few speakers left in the world, Figures of Speech articulates the power and beauty of these languages and fights to safeguard the indelible ideas they contain.

Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Figures of Speech
Saturday, January 25 at 8:00 p.m. at the Center for the Arts
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