The King of Lines

October 31, 2007

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.