Within San Francisco’s busy, diverse dance scene, Alonzo King LINES Ballet has been an important and influential company for three decades. This technically accomplished, independent-minded troupe of 14 dancers performs King’s choreography that draws on his unusually varied dance background and reflects his intense curiosity and intelligence. But the company is just the best-known aspect of King’s enterprise. LINES’ downtown Dance Center offers everything from public classes in three dozen different movement techniques to a rigorous BFA program in conjunction with Dominican University.
King grew up in California, but came to New York for intensive dance training that included study at the School of American Ballet, American Ballet Theatre School, Harkness House and Alvin Ailey. Heading west, he danced with Bella Lewitzky in Los Angeles before founding LINES in 1982. His dancers must have strong classical technique, even as his choreography moves in diverse directions.
“I take it for granted that they have mastered the language of what I refer to as Western classical dance,” he said. “And with that under their belt—not in terms of mimicry, but in terms of full understanding of it as a science—then from there we can go forward.
“I choose dancers who are honest, have humility, and are fearless. All the things we admire in human beings are the things I admire in dancers, because that’s actually what you’re going to see on stage. Their character and their understanding are the dominant things that are broadcast from the stage.”
LINES returns to the Joyce Theater, where it last appeared in 2009, with two recent works—Scheherazade and Resin—by King that reflect his extensive musical knowledge and interests. Speaking by phone last week from San Francisco, King was reticent about discussing the specific idea behind these dances, beyond saying that “we picked the ones that make a program that has variety, the ones that will have the strongest impact.” But he was more forthcoming when the conversation turned to the specific musical scores for these works.
Scheherazade came about when Jean-Christophe Maillot, director of the Ballet de Monte Carlo, invited King to contribute a work to a 2009 Ballets Russes Centenary program in Monaco. King loved the Rimsky-Korsakov score for the famously sensual 1910 Fokine ballet, but his own version has a specific starting point—and a related but significantly different score.
“I was intrigued by the question, Who is Scheherazade?—because no one really talks about who she is as a person,” he said. “That’s where I began.”
He researched different versions of The Arabian Nights. “I read the Egyptian version, the Syrian version, the Iraqi version—getting as much input and differentiation as I could. Zakir Hussain reworked the original score,” he said. “Rimsky-Korsakov was looking to the East, as he often did, and Zakir is from the East, so he’s looking back towards the West. He’s keeping some of the original melody, but he brought in ancient instruments from Persia and India into the score, combining Western and Eastern instruments.”
King’s works often explore and reflect a wide range of cultural influences, and his musical choices are particularly diverse.
“I don’t have a limited taste when it comes to music. I think of music as another language, a world that you enter regardless of its cultural beginnings,” he said.
For Resin (2011), he choreographed to Sephardic music from many different countries—including Turkey, Yemen, Morocco and Spain. “The Sephardic diaspora is enormous. I was fortunate to meet an expert named Francesco Spagnolo, who was invaluable in that he provided me with field recordings that are not catalogued or produced. That was a real coup, to be able to get access to that kind of material. Some of them are very old, and some are recent.
LINES is particularly popular in Europe, touring there twice, or even three times, a year. Performances in New York have been far less frequent, but bringing his company here allows King to reconnect with the place where he studied as a young dancer. After years of absorbing and synthesizing a variety of styles, he says he now doesn’t think specifically in terms of ballet and modern dance as separate and exclusive.
“When you begin training in modern, from the very beginning the teachers are talking to you about ideas, concepts, principles, connections,” he said. “In ballet training, that’s not the case. It’s usually about approximating some ideal to a physical form, without much discussion about the origin of things, what their meanings are. That’s changing today, but I see them working together to create what is great dancing. So for me there’s no division; I think they support each other.”
Alonzo King LINES Ballet
May 8 to 13, Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave. (at 19th St.), www.joyce.org. Times vary; $19 & up.
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