The King of Lines

On a warm San Francisco spring morning, choreographer Alonzo King leads a pre-professional women’s class and sustains a running patter for an hour. He’s a combination of drill sergeant and guru.


“I don’t want to see a position. I want to see an idea,” King barks. “I want to find the geometry of fifth. It must start inside. This is your instrument. I want to see you play it.” King can be inspirational, but he can also be specific: “No hips, no hula, only the socket,” he commands at one point. You can almost feel the wave of confidence slowly filling the room.


Ask King about the qualities he seeks in a dancer and the answer should explain why his LINES Ballet attracts a stream of performers desperate (to the point of undergoing multiple auditions) to get in. The challenge is simply too tempting for the young and adventurous.


“First, I take it for granted that they have a solid technique,” the choreographer says. “But what I admire in dancers is the same thing I admire in all human beings. I like fearlessness. I like honesty. I like someone who can forget about themselves, to lose their self-consciousness, to be something, rather than to do.”


Inquire, then, about the place of the audience in the scheme.


“Look,” King says. “Life is hard. Who wants to get home, take a shower, dress up, go out to a theater, and be bored?”


Certainly no one among the San Francisco dance crowd, who will assuredly show up in droves this month for LINES Ballet’s two-week, 25th anniversary season. They are drawn to King’s daring, skewed classicism, his arresting choice of music, his enveloping sensuality, and the experience of watching dancers simultaneously stretch their limbs and expose their souls in public.


From any point of view, LINES—a single-choreographer, modern ballet company based on the left coast that has endured and flourished for a quarter century—is a phenomenon. King’s nine dancers, who work on a 38-week contract, participate in two annual home seasons and tour up to eight weeks a year (the past summer’s itinerary included stops at France’s Montpellier Festival, the Spoleto Festival, and gigs in Austria and Poland).


King has also established a choreographic career away from LINES, which may be why dancers flock to San Francisco from all over the map. They have been awed by his works (many of them commissions) performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet, Washington Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theater, Philadanco, the Royal Swedish Ballet, and Ballett Frankfurt. He was recently courted by the Kirov Ballet, but rejected the invitation when he learned that he would have to work with the music of a particular composer. When he tells you, “I love renegades,” you dare not disagree.


In addition to his artistic directorship, King sits atop a mini-empire with a $2.8 million annual budget. He founded the San Francisco Dance Center in 1989, built it into one of the west’s largest dance facilities; and then, six years ago, he inaugurated the LINES Ballet School and the Pre-Professional Program. They’re all housed in a vintage, mildly raffish building just off teeming Market Street. He also heads the BFA program in dance at Marin County’s Dominican University of California.


But King seems happiest in the studio. Before the LINES summer tour, he spent a day reworking Handel (2005). Recently retired San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre was guesting with the troupe and he felt she deserved a special tribute. Without any music cues, four men lift the ballerina and hold her aloft. It’s a high-risk moment; the five of them could crash to the floor in a blizzard of sprained ankles. “Good, good,” King yells. “It would be nice, if it has some contradiction, a bit of traction, so the whole thing doesn’t look too smooth.” Maffre’s back is dramatically arched; her tapered legs float in the air. “Yes,” King shouts, “like a ship’s prow. It’s great.”


King came along at the dawn of an era when barriers between ballet and modern dance were breaking down. He has capitalized on the thirst of audiences and dancers for the new and unclassifiable—a third way, within a recognizable framework. LINES dancers have ballet slippers, bare feet, or, when the piece demands them, pointe shoes. They are turned out, they land buoyantly in fifth position. Yet King energizes their upper bodies; he tests their balances to the point of collapse. He sends limbs jutting at angles that disdain the conventional symmetries of ballet. He instills the spine with an almost moral force. Some fans even speak of transcendence.


Ricardo Zayas, who joined LINES in January after two years with Ailey II, is intrigued by King’s sense of paradox. “I like the fact that the choreography can be both subtle and complex at the same time. I both love and hate the fact that Alonzo lets you play with the movement.”


Six-year LINES veteran Laurel Keen says, “Alonzo has cracked me open. You must maintain your technique, but never at the cost of total abandonment. He made me realize there were infinite possibilities.”


Possibilities were uppermost in King’s mind when, in 1981, he fled New York for San Francisco. “I grew up surrounded by nature in Santa Barbara,” he says. “I couldn’t deal any more with taking a subway ride just to see the horizon.” King had attended California Institute of the Arts and he praises Donald McKayle as a seminal force in his career. He also danced with the “inspirational” Bella Lewitzky before heading east.


King, who once danced in Swan Lake, prefers to see ballet and modern as part of the continuum of Western dance. He often talks in metaphors. “This whole technique is built on the straight line and the circle,” King says during a chat in his tiny office. “The circle is the sun and it must radiate.”


King will tell you what has always annoyed him about the ballet world. “Most ballet companies are like individual belief systems—dioceses or churches. They’re stuck in specific ways of moving,” he says. “You’ll find principal dancers who are skilled but afraid to try something new. The legs are educated, but the torso is lacking. Look at the old Russian training; the torso is so delicious.”


Music of all kinds seems to nurture his creative spirit. Both premieres this month will have live music. The first features a score by the great Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, one of several world music specialists with whom King has collaborated in the past. The other will use baroque scores. He sees no contradiction in the contrast.


“Music for me is music. A lament is a lament, whether it’s Bulgarian or Indian,” King says. “What inspires me is what the music is talking about, no matter what culture it is stamped with.”


King notes that classical music has driven most of his ballets. He recalls growing up in a household that regularly invited musicians to perform. King’s father often gave recitals of German art songs.


King’s working methods with musicians vary with circumstances. “First, you talk and go over the terrain. I might say to Zakir that I would like an adagio at the beginning and one at the end, something different in the middle, and then a strong finale with these particular instruments. As we talk, we drop what we’re attached to; we start again and something new emerges.”


King has also invited musicians to observe the company rehearsing in silence. When the legendary jazz musician Pharoah Sanders started working with LINES, he turned up with his saxophone and his pianist and started improvising as the dancers moved.


“Anything can happen, as long as I fulfill my obligation to classical form,” says King. “And what is classical? We’re talking about what is permanent as opposed to what is temporary. Its real aim is metaphysical spirit, whether it’s Handel’s music, Gothic cathedrals, the igloo, or the teepee. Choreographers must use the instrument of the body in that way.”


That philosophy may explain why King, who is African American, refuses to identify or “brand” LINES as an African American troupe. He has always hired dancers with different cultural backgrounds: “It’s important for me that the company look like the rest of the world.”


King takes a wider view of his own place in the scheme. “It’s tricky. When you’re dealing with art, you’re not in the limited world of race, sex, age, or time. Do we talk of Bach as a white composer?” he asks. “Most definitions don’t give the whole story. I do have a unique experience as an African American. I was taught to internalize things (which I suppose is part of Eastern philosophies) before they became external, which I guess is Western.


But when people say that ballet is white, that’s absurd. How can an idea be a race?”


It seems fitting to ask King what he wishes for the next 25 years. Mostly, he would like an increase in his budget for décor and costumes. But as for King the choreographer, the response is as reassuring as it is predictable:


“I feel like an excavator, and I’m just not finished digging.”


Allan Ulrich is a
Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor and a frequent contributor to American and international publications.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

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