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Alonzo King - More Resources

Alonzo King (1952- )

by Rita Felciano      

In over forty years of choreographing, Alonzo King has put an unmistakable mark on American dance. He has rethought ballet as a 21st century art in an intensely personal way by melding the restraint and clarity of ballet with the dynamism and experimentation of modern dance. In close to two hundred works—often creating two or three per year—King has puzzled, challenged, and mesmerized audiences in this country and abroad. His Alonzo King LINES Ballet is also one of very few ballet companies that follows the modern dance practice of exclusively performing the works of its founding artistic director.

King sees ballet, or western classical dance, as he likes to call it, not as a style, but as a mathematically based, scientific language with which to explore truths as they exist in all cultures. Instead of reaching for externally imposed ideas—like a suit of clothes—he wants dancers to dig and unearth what is inside them, to become the people they are meant to be. Often he has called dance “thought made visible.” In that way, King recalls early twentieth century dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman. Thanks to this approach, he has been in demand as choreographer and master teacher both in this country and abroad. One of his early admirers was Natalia Makarova, whom he coached in Swan Lake among other works, and in 1986 he choreographed two solos for her, Après un rève and Quand ma mère m’apprenait.           

King was born in Albany, Georgia, into a family of civil rights activists. His grandfather founded the local NAACP, while his father, Slater King, and two uncles were active in the struggle for desegregation. Even after moving to Santa Barbara with his mother, Valencia King Nelson, he stayed close to his whole family, remembering having gone to civil rights marches with his father. His mother too was active in civil rights and had a wide circle of friends from around the world. They gave the young King his first taste of the complexity of global cultures. 

King’s eagerness to find his own way into ballet may have been encouraged by his studies as a child with the former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo ballerina Mia Slavenska. He remembers her as  “being exacting in alignment and technique” but also as having “knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology.” For the young King she was “the first [teacher] to use a scientific approach to dance.”1 Santa Barbara High School opened the world of modern dance. Enrolling at Fisk University—where his parents had met—he quickly decided that he needed to dance and embarked for New York, which offered him training at the American Ballet Theatre School, Harkness School of Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, and the School of American Ballet. He also performed with the Harkness Youth Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Donald McKayle, Lucas Hoving and Glen Tetley. After a stint in Europe as a dancer and ballet master he returned to Los Angeles to work with his early mentor Bella Lewitzky. He credits this California choreographer with having introduced him to the craft of choreography.          

Moving to San Francisco in 1977, King started teaching, quickly developing a reputation for classes that challenged dancers—both beginners and professionals—to go beyond technique. Dissatisfied with traditional approaches to ballet, he asked them to find the intention behind a movement, to strip away non-essentials and search for the essence behind surface appearances. (He called one of his very early pieces, the 1974 Maya, after the Hindu goddess of illusion.) At one point he taught fourteen packed classes a week at the Academy of Ballet and Dance Mission Theater.2    

In 1982, King co-founded LINES Contemporary Ballet (since renamed Alonzo King LINES Ballet) with Pam Hagen (executive director until 2002) and Robert Rosenwasser (creative director and designer) whom he had met while choreographing and teaching for the South Coast Contemporary Dance Theater in Santa Barbara. His small (at first) company consisted of experienced performers with both national and international careers behind them who wanted to deepen their dance practice. Today’s dozen dancers are, probably, the most culturally integrated ballet company in country. They include artists from around the globe but also graduates from Alonzo King LINES Ballet BFA at Dominican University in Marin County, established in 2006.

King’s dance-making encourages both men and women to rethink gender as a culturally imposed concept and constraint on a dancer’s individuality. He considers masculinity and femininity qualities that are transformed as they interact with each other, bringing about harmony and transcendence.3 A King pas de deux, the center piece of classical ballet, rarely has romantic overtones but becomes a sometimes fierce give-and-take between opposing yet complementary forces that hold each other in precarious balance.

For the most part King prefers to choreograph sequences of solos, duets and small groupings. Until fairly recently, he seemed to have little interest in showcasing his dancers as a coherent group. Yet he has started to embrace whole ensemble sections that can propose a communal sense of purpose.

As a category-defying choreographer, whose women can be powerful and whose men lyrical, he impresses with a striking repertoire that eschews ballet presentational modes but in which you can’t miss the lines, though often broken and tangled; the all-important balances, though often off-center and precarious; and persistent attempts to defy gravity while also giving into it. King also reached beyond Western concepts of dance, collaborating in 2001 with BaAka Nzamba Lela from the Aka clan of the Mbuti in the Central African Republic for The People of the Forest. In 2007, LINES premiered Long River, High Sky with a group of Shaolin Monks from China to a score created by frequent collaborator Miguel Frasconi in collaboration with Melody of China, a local Chinese orchestra that also performed the score. A little closer to home, he has collaborated with a modern dance company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, in Azimuth (2013).

Nowhere is King’s spiritual embrace of the “lines” that connect everything more evident then in his truly global reach for music. From Western classical and contemporary composers to Islamic, Russian Orthodox and Native American chants, to the rich heritage from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, King finds something in each music that speaks to him. Sometimes the connection between dance and music is quite perceivable, sometimes one simply informs the other. Scores are often assembled from various sources; they are also commissioned and frequently performed live.

King has found some musicians particularly congenial. Over the years he has worked several times with Tabla player and composer Zakir Hussainfor Who Dressed you like a Foreigner (1998), Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000), Rasa (2007), and Scheherazade (2009),for which Hussain rewrote the Rimsky-Korsakov score; Saxophonist/composer Pharaoh Sanders in Ocean (1994), Three Stops on the Way Home (1997), Before the Blues (2004), Migration (2006), The Radius of Convergence, and The Steady Articulation of Perseverance (2009); Nubian Egyptian composer/musician Hamza El Din in Tarab (1998); and the group El Hamideen in Ocean (with Sanders in 1994), Heart Song (2003), The Moroccan Project, and Salt (2005).

In 2002, LINES moved into three floors of the Odd Fellows center in downtown San Francisco. The historic building houses the company, the LINES Ballet Training Program--a two-year pre-professional curriculum for dancers 17-24--and the Lines Ballet Summer program for young dancers 11-24. Both programs were established in 2001. Also open to the general public are the six studios of the San Francisco Dance Center, which since 1989 has offered over 80 classes a week, including among others Ballet, Modern, Flamenco, Hip Hop, and Jazz for beginners to professionals. The BFA students at Dominican University take their liberal arts classes on the Marin County campus, but most of their dance classes in the professional LINES company studios in San Francisco.

LINES has engaged in a vigorous touring program since 1984, performing at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, the Prague Modern Dance Festival in 1990, on a Central American Tour Guatemala in 1995 and, more recently, at the Venice Biennale, Monaco Dance Forum, Maison de la Dance in Lyon, the Edinburgh International Festival, Montpellier Danse, the Wolfsburg Festival, the Holland Dance Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The company has toured extensively in Europe (performing at prestigious venues throughout France, Germany, Italy, and Spain in 2016), Israel, and South America, and regularly performs at the Joyce Theater in New York.

King’s ballets have entered the repertoire of both American and European companies, among others the Joffrey Ballet (Lila, Canté, and Prayer); Dance Theatre of Harlem (Signs and Wonders and Ground); Ballet Met (Without Wax), North Carolina Dance Theater (Map, Salt, and Chants); Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Following the Subtle Current Upstream, and Heart Song); Royal Swedish Ballet (Handel); Les Ballet de Monte Carlo (Writing Ground), and Ballet Béjart (Figures of Thought). Despite the impressive body of work he has created, Alonzo King shows no signs of a lagging imagination or of weakening his commitment to ballet as a science that is rooted in universal principles.            


 NOTES

1. Alfred Kay. “ A Search for ‘inner meanings’: Choreographer Spurns Superficial Side of Ballet Movement. The Sacramento Bee, April 17, 1988.

2. Molly Rogers. “Map-Maker: Katy Warner and the LINES Dance Center Celebrate 25 Years of Dance Education.” InDance, Nov. 2014.

3. Jill Nunes Jensen. “Transcending Gender in Ballet’s Lines” in When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities Across Borders. ed. Jennifer Fisher and Anthony Shay. Oxford University Press, 2009. 


 Born in Switzerland and educated there and at UC Berkeley, Rita Felciano was the Dance Critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian for twenty-two years and still isa Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine. Until recently she regularly reviewed dance for the San Jose Mercury News and was a Bay Area correspondent for Dance View Magazine. She still thinks about and writes on Bay Area dance for the danceviewtimes website. Her reviews, features and essays have been published by such national and international publications as the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Ballet Review, Dance Now, Dance International and Tanz.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Roseman, Janet Lynn. Dance Masters: Interviews with Legends of Dance. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Plett, Nicole. Dancing with the Moon. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage: Dance Advance. 2003.

Homans, Jennifer. “The Universalist.The New Republic, August 23, 2012.

Web Resources

Website of Alonzo King Lines Ballet

https://www.linesballet.org/