Getting Under the Skin

December 31, 2012

30 years of Alonzo King’s challenge to dancers


Keelan Whitmore in a costume by Robert Rosenwasser, Photo: RJ Muna, courtesy Lines



“If you are vulnerable, honest, and respond like a tuning fork, then we are kin. I surrender, and I see you. It’s quickly obvious who will take their ‘clothes’ off,” Alonzo King answers a UC Irvine student’s question on what he looks for in a dancer. The occasion was a Q&A last fall after a preview showing of a work that King was choreographing for the combined forces of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The yet unnamed piece will receive its world premiere on February 1 and 2 at Cal Performances.


For King, whose company celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, telling dancers to take their clothes off—he also talks about “peeling the layers of the onion”—is a way of asking them to strip themselves of what he calls “false identities.” “I want to see you, not your race, gender, technique, or occupation,” he tells them.


In his 30-year career King has made 95 dances for his own group and more than two dozen commissioned ones for other companies, including the Royal Swedish Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As an African-American artistic director of a one-choreographer ballet company with a multiracial ensemble, King occupies a singular position in American dance. As a thinker about ballet in terms of a multifaceted, scientific language and dance as something akin to meditative practice, he is unique.

Asked what he has learned during the last three decades, he doesn’t hesitate: “I learned more that things have to proceed from the inside out. I knew that early; and that I was interested in what was behind appearances, not how it looked, but its manner of operation.”


Alonzo King, Photo: RJ Muna, Courtesy Lines


When he was 8 or 10, while accompanying his father (Slater King, a civil rights leader) on a business trip to New York, Alonzo saw his first ballet. “Afterwards,” says King, “he asked me how I had liked it. I was enraptured and told him that the dancer in the front didn’t have it, but another farther back really did. I also told him what didn’t work and how it could be improved. He just looked at me and said that I really was something.”


But did he really know and why did he, even at that age? “Yes,” King affirms. “Inside I did know. I think I did know because I love dancers. I always had that. At the bottom line, I like to see good dancing.”


Now he sees good dancing every day. The 12 members of his troupe are exquisite artists and they often rehearse more than one project at a time.


Caroline Rocher has been a company member since 2007. Fearless yet elegant with a silken authority to her phrasing, she was a “25 to Watch” in 2001. “Alonzo makes you work more with ideas than steps,” says Rocher. “You have to find the intention behind the steps; that was very different for me,” she recalls. Trained in France and at The Ailey School, Rocher performed with both American (Dance Theatre of Harlem) and European companies (Lyon Opera and Bavarian State Ballet). Encountering King’s work at DTH, she was intrigued enough to think about joining LINES one day. “I was 30, and I was looking for a change,” she says. “I wanted to work in a more intimate environment, to have a more one-to-one relationship with a choreographer.”


Though becoming a LINES dancer has been “deeply satisfying,” it has not always been easy. King’s method is to ask the dancers to dig a movement’s impetus out of themselves and then to stretch/pull/yank it to the extreme of where it can go. “I really, really wanted to be there,” Rocher remembers, but “Alonzo’s ideas often are difficult, so you just have to keep trying. Now, I feel more comfortable with his way of working, though I still have a long way to go.”


Pushing dancers towards becoming more themselves, both as artists and as human beings, is one of King’s great gifts to the art. It’s also what Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, saw in King when, rather serendipitously, he watched him rehearse LINES in 2009. “We were doing a summer intensive [in San Francisco] in the studio next to him, and he invited me in,” Edgerton recalls. “Though I had known his choreography for years, I was enthralled with the way he was working. He inspired the dancers to want to go further, to investigate more deeply the many different levels that movement can take you.” Edgerton wanted his dancers in Chicago to have that same experience even though he knew that their companies were quite different. “His dancers are more elongated and neoclassical while mine are more grounded.”


After King set his 2000 Ailey commission Following the Subtle Current Upstream on Hubbard in 2011, the two men started to talk about a possible collaboration. Edgerton wanted every one of his 18 dancers involved. King, who choreographs chains of small group sequences that flow into each other, had his doubts. He remembers telling Edgerton, “But that’s not who I am.” At the same time, however, he was intrigued by the challenge. “I said to myself, if you have the opportunity to be uncomfortable—which is what I always tell my dancers—take it.”


In September after three weeks of working in California, the two troupes clearly had found a common ground, a common impulse for movement. The result at Irvine, unfinished as it was, showed King as having challenged himself to move larger groups onstage—without losing the complexity of the more intimate choreography that he values so highly.


When choreographing for his own dancers, King has always reached far and wide for his musical choices. His company has performed to jazz (Jason Moran, Pharoah Sanders, Coleman Hawkins), world music (Zakir Hussain, Astor Piazzolla, Mickey Hart, El Hamideen, Russian liturgical chants), and European classical scores, both contemporary and historical. King’s diverse view of ballet is popular in Europe, where he tours annually, most recently last November on a month-long engagement to 11 cities.


Caroline Rocher in
Scheherazade, Photo: RJ Muna, Courtesy Lines


In terms of design, Robert Rosenwasser (costumes, light) and Axel Morgenthaler (light) have given LINES its distinct look of luminosity and tensile strength. Substantial physical sets, perhaps for financial reasons, have been relatively rare.


But two years ago King took the plunge and commissioned local architect Christopher Haas to create two sets for Triangle of the Squinches. Though monumental in size, the pieces are also portable enough—one is made of rubberized strings, the other of layered cardboard—for a company that tours 14 to 17 weeks per year. Perhaps most noteworthy was King’s decision to have his dancers interact with the two sculptures, suggesting a dynamic relationship between inert material and the human body.


“Where does the idea come from that objects are inanimate?” King asks. “When a primitive holds a talisman, that is real to him. We know from science that everything is just different vibrations. Skyscrapers, igloos, teepees, a hill in a landscape have vibrations. It’s always a pas de deux with the aim to become one. Take a light bulb. It becomes what it is because of the energy that goes into it.”


The light bulb King refers to plays a major role in his most recent creation, Constellation, premiered last fall at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Inspired by Jim Campbell’s “Exploded View,” an installation at SFMOMA, King asked Campbell to design a set—from light bulbs. The dancers performed against and through a curtain of globes and used some as playful accoutrements on their bodies.


Looking forward to rehearsing his dancers in this latest piece and thinking back on the last three decades, King says he is full of gratitude to all the artists he has worked with. He might be thinking about the Baaka Nzamba Lela people from Cameroon (with whom he worked in 2001) or the Shaolin monks from China (with whom he collaborated in 2007). Or he might be thinking of all the extraordinary dancers who have passed through LINES and have been changed by their work together, like Drew Jacoby (now dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater), John Michael Schert (with Trey McIntyre Project), and Prince Credell (with Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève). The stream of new dancers has allowed him, as he says, to keep renewing himself.


Rita Felciano is the critic for the
San Francisco Bay Guardian and also writes for