Choreographer Alonzo King vividly recalls the countless nights he spent as an elementary-school-age kid in Santa Barbara, cranking world music on the stereo with his mom. Their impromptu living-room dance parties planted a seed, with the LINES Ballet artistic director going on to be described by many in the dance world as a “master”.
“My mother had trained [in dance] and performed at university, and when I was a kid she used to show me things and we danced together,” King says on the line from his San Francisco home, before his troupe heads here for the Vancouver International Dance Festival. “I became an addict—although, compared to dancing with Mom, everything else pales in comparison.
“What was interesting to me was the way she moved; she was intelligent in her movement,” he adds. “Movement became a way to observe people. As a child, what came out of adults’ mouths and the way they moved their bodies were often in contradiction. I received more information from the way they were moving—how they were walking, how they were holding their body—than from what they were saying. Movement for me became a way to assess people and to get a sense of character, and then it became a way for me to communicate ideas.”
King’s parents divorced early on, but both helped shape his distinct choreographic voice. While his mom gave him his first taste of modern ballet, his dad, a civil-rights activist, was a follower of Indian mystic Ramakrishna and introduced his kids to meditation. No wonder, then, that King’s highly kinetic contemporary ballet is as contemplative as it is cutting-edge.
In a conversation that spans everything from Homer to the Bhagavad-Gita, King calls his works “thought structures”. However, he’s reticent to divulge much about the inspiration behind specific pieces such as Resin and Scheherazade, which LINES Ballet will perform at the VIDF.
It’s clear that both works draw from the world music that King has loved ever since he was a child, Resin using Sephardic pieces and Scheherazade featuring Persian styles. But their concepts also go beyond the songs.
“What is music? Consciousness of thought that is too sublime for words,” he says. “Dance is thought made visible.”
If King is more comfortable expressing ideas through dance than in words, he’s certainly earned high respect. Revered choreographer William Forsythe is quoted on LINES’ website, calling King “one of the few true ballet masters of our times”.
After performing for a decade with Santa Barbara Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem, among other companies, King has created works for dozens of troupes, such as the Joffrey Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Alvin Ailey American Ballet Theatre, Hong Kong Ballet, and Washington Ballet.
Vancouver International Dance Festival cofounder Jay Hirabayashi says that King’s curvaceous movement brings to mind the Forsythe Company artistic director’s own gestures.
“What I love about Alonzo King’s choreography is how he makes the dancers move,” Hirabayashi says in a phone interview. “It reminds me of the same kind of big, bold movement that William Forsythe uses. The torsos are so fluid and flexible, not rigid. The ballet dancers aren’t like sticks; they’re so mobile.
“I’m pretty fussy about ballet. There’s a lot of ballet I don’t like,” Hirabayashi adds. “I’m not a big fan of the classics. They are to me too much like museum pieces. They still speak to people, but they don’t speak to me as much as contemporary work. For the festival we always choose artists that are primarily interested in body as vehicle for expression. This company just blew me away the first time I saw them. His choreography is so fluid. The way he integrates the duets and quartets into ensemble work… He’s a master.”
Besides inventive movement, what has struck Hirabayashi and other LINES fans is King’s consistently compelling choice of music.
Scheherazade, which is King’s own take on the Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic stories of 1,001 Nights, has an original score by tabla master Zakir Hussain that incorporates Persian and western instruments. The piece was commissioned by the Monaco Dance Forum to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 2009. Resin, meanwhile, is set to songs from the Sephardic tradition, including rare archival field recordings interwoven with Judeo-Spanish songs.
“It’s beautiful music,” King says of the compositions, adding that those who have never seen LINES Ballet perform might be in for a surprise.
“They have seen it before,” King says. “If they’ve been to a sunset or experienced any kind of truth or met any kind of human being they’ve found interesting, that is what my work is. You don’t have to travel the world to know the world.”
Alonzo King LINES Ballet performs this Friday and Saturday (March 2 and 3) at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival.