Breaking Routine

Alonzo King hates labels, blends cultures and brings the spirit of improv to dance

The two dances on the Alonzo King LINES Ballet program this Sunday, Feb. 10, at Centennial Hall will be performed to two wildly different types of music.

The lyrical "Dust and Light," a series of 15 short duets and trios that has the dancers bathed in silver light, is set to European music. The score pairs Baroque compositions by the 17th-century Italian Arcangelo Corelli with sacred choral music of the 20th century by Frenchman Francis Poulenc.

But for the second dance, "Scheherazade"—a re-envisioning of the famous Persian and Arabic tales The Thousand and One Nights—the dancers perform to music that goes back and forth between Europe and Asia. The score is played on both Persian and Western instruments and, even more dramatically, it's a "reinterpretation" by Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain of Russian music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Even so, choreographer King doesn't want you to get carried away by the complex multicultural musicology.

"We are fooled by form," King declared by phone from San Francisco last week.

People get unduly distracted by the stylistic differences between cultures, he explained. "If I take a (musical) lament from Pakistan or from a Quaker choir missal, a person blocked by their culture will think there's a difference between the two. But the idea of difference never resonated with me. I'm more moved by commonality."

And all art—including that lament, that hymn and King's own innovative dances— should be heading for the same profound place, he said. "The aim of art is to be awakened."

In the art of dance, it's not particular steps or styles that matter, he noted. What's important is if the people watching it "can feel like a child. Is this genuine? Or true? People can be open and come to experience living art."

King grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., the son of a noted African-American civil rights activist. His dance training reflects a range of influences—in New York, he studied both at the American Ballet Theatre, bastion of classical ballet, and at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where modernism is melded with African-American vernacular dance. And back in California, he trained with famed modern dance choreographer Bella Lewitzky.

He founded his own company in San Francisco in 1982, giving it the name LINES to evoke the mathematical principle that everything we see, whether circular or straight, is delineated by lines.

King's muscular contemporary ballets have won him much of the acclaim that the dance world has to give. He's been awarded the Bessie, the Jacob's Pillow Creativity Award and an NEA choreography fellowship. He's created dances for 50 companies around the world, including the Swedish Royal Ballet and Alvin Ailey, and he's been named a San Francisco treasure by Mayor Gavin Newsom. His company regularly tours internationally—Israel and France are on the current itinerary.

Critics have hailed him for "moving ballet in a very 21st-century direction" and for championing "the most sophisticated modernism in classical dance."

But King dislikes labels, and he doesn't even like the word ballet.

"I prefer to call ballet Western classical dance," he said. He thinks of dances not as a particular series of movements, but as "thought treatises. Dance is thought made visible, just as music is sound made audible."

In his troupe, he strives to bring performances to those lofty heights by working with dancers who go beyond purely technical skills.

"There's a point, after you acquire skills as a dancer, and you do acquire skills, naturally, that you have conceit. Then humility has to enter. It's a liberating place to be."

His 12 dancers hail from points around the globe, including Europe, the U.S., Australia and Asia, and their training represents an interesting mix of influences.

Korean dancer Yujin Kim trained in Korean traditional dance before turning to ballet. Wisconsinite Meredith Webster studied with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and in her spare time, picked up a bachelor's in environmental science from the University of Washington.

Texan Zachary Tang graduated from Juilliard and made it to Dance magazine's "Top 25 to Watch" list. Brooklynite Ricardo Zayas danced with Ailey II. And Frenchwoman Caroline Rocher was for years a principal dancer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where King himself once danced.

These dancers also help shape King's choreography.

"What's interesting about this company," he said, "is that the dancers are collaborators. Are the dances choreographed? Yes. Are there moments of improv? Yes.

"Some people think dancers are Legos and choreographers place them around the stage. But they are human beings with a point of view, with an idea of what they bring to art. They have strong ideas."

And even though the dancers perform the works again and again while on tour, they approach the pieces differently each time.

"The dancers are given a detailed 'text'—like Hamlet for actors—but they don't want to become hacks," King said. "They make lively choices all the time.

"It's like our relationship with God, or our spouse. When it becomes routine, it dies. A dance appears different at different times. It's a living thing."

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