Last month in my column, I briefly mentioned Alonzo King LINES Ballet, one of San Francisco’s smaller and more contemporary ballet companies. This weekend marks the opening of its fall season, which features a world premiere along with the return of the MOROCCAN Project
Artistic director Alonzo King’s new work features a collaboration with jazz pianist Jason Moran, who has performed alongside some of today’s jazz greats including Ravi Coltrane and Cassandra Wilson. The Jason Moran Trio will be accompanying the performance opening weekend.
Rounding out the bill is the MOROCCAN Project, which blends shifting rhythms and unexpected intimacy withthe haunting strains of strings performed live by El Hamideen.
This week, between rehearsals for his fast-approaching fall season, I spoke with Alonzo King about his dance background and vision.
Becca Hirschman: How did you become involved in ballet?
Alonzo King: My mother was an amateur dancer and in university belonged to a dance group… and when I was a kid, she would show me movement. I loved the way she moved; she moved beautifully. The way she manipulated time seemed very magical to me. I could watch her for a long time, and so I admired that, you know, well I admired many things about her, but really the way she moved. And when she began to teach me, I loved it. It was a form of intimacy for us both, and I never left it alone.
I wish I had a story like that!
Now you do!
How did you come to San Francisco and found your company?
I had been working in New York and Europe for years, and I grew up in Santa Barbara, and so I had really begun to miss the West Coast, to miss mountains, to miss the ocean, and more than that to miss the horizon because in New York, living in the city, I would go to parks almost every day to be around trees, but to see a horizon, you know the edge, it began to be a point after years where this was unhealthy for me. I wanted to see a horizon.
And so I came back to a place where I knew dance was very active and robust and that was San Francisco. Well, not come back. But I decided that this was a place where, when I was looking at America, where there was a big cultural center for dance. And it was not LA!
So did you have contacts who were here already or were you familiar with the dance scene in the Bay Area?
No, I wasn’t familiar with the dance scene at all. I mean, I came and I started teaching, and the classes were packed. Pamela Hagen, who was the co-founder of Lines, she was a dancer and Robert Rosenwasser, was also a cofounder. Pam said, “Let’s start a company,” and I said, “OK.”
And here you are, 27 years later!
Yeah, who knew? I just wanted to do dance and who knew that I’d take on all of this and what’s so interesting about anything you choose in life is that it’s going to train you. You’re going to be lifted up from it and you’re going to be beat down because of it. Whatever vocation we choose, it’s going to be some anvil that we hammer on to develop our character.
And so its wonderful to be able to choose one that you love because like in any relationship, there’s the romance and the romance goes away and then there’s the real commitment; there are the rough times and the beautiful times. It’s about developing character.
When I think of your company and your dancers, what comes to mind is a flowing and circular type of movement, almost like a figure eight. To me it’s very beautiful and intricate to watch, it’s almost like a yo-yo; it bounces and spins, swirls and leaps, but it always looks like there’s a push in the center of the body. And it looks easy, but I know it’s not!
How do you know that?!?
Oh, I know these dancers have been training for years! So I was wondering what kind of traits you look for when you hire dancers or look for dancers?
Well, I think that’s really apt what you’re saying because if you look at this physical universe, everything is based on the sphere, everything. Nucleus, radius, electrons, protons, the planets, the galaxies, they’re all spherical, and so that same thing is inherent in the body, and you manipulate it by going from circle to straight line. And all those things you illustrated are part of developing movement structure.
In terms of looking for dancers, what I mentioned earlier is that the character is the bottom line because what you’re looking at onstage is who people are. People dance their consciousness, and so who’s brave, who’s generous, who’s loving, who’s consciences, who’s risk-taking. All the things we like in heroic people are the things I look for in a dancer because these are human beings, after all. So we’re looking for the noblest kind of character.
You know it’s inextricable that who people are is what you’re watching move, and so if they’re givers, if they’re brilliant, it’s going to be obvious. And the opposite as well. If they are selfish, if they’re vain, if they’re scared–all of that is apparent. I like people who are heroic, who have the ability to get lost in movement and not be self-conscious. Humility is a beautiful thing to see in dancing. Sincerity is something very rare to see, but beautiful when you see it in dancing. And we take it for granted that they’ve got a technique that is second nature. Yeah, so who people are.
I’d love to see one of your auditions sometime! So moving on, how do you find choreographic inspiration?
Inspiration is around us all the time. I think that the first thing that we have to begin with is gratitude. That I woke up this morning and I’m breathing, and I am one of the rare people in the 6 billion on this globe that chose to do this work, and I’m actually doing it. You know, to be filled with gratitude opens so many doors for you, and that you begin your work because you’re glad to be at work. And then things happen. I think that when you’re in a mental state of gratitude, there’s a bounty that comes. And every time that I’ve been stuck and I switch my brain, bounty happens.
Also, you know, there’s craft, that if someone needs a suit built, meaning there’s a deadline and there’s a ballet done, I can build a suit. A lot of people think they want to wait for inspiration, but to construct a suit or create a meal, you want a really good cook, you want a chef, you want a tailor. There’s a craft under your belt. But like a composer, of course, you want the gift! You want to tap into the gold vein where you are dealing with beautiful truths and profundities. And all of those things, after you’ve been in the profession for a long time, just like writing, you realize, “Oh my god, did I write that?”
These are discoveries and gifts. And so the idea of authorship at some point becomes laughable because you realize that you’re plunging and excavating for things that really do exist.
What’s your editing process like? In my mind, I’d think you mold and mold and mold until something pops out, but I know that some choreographers are really private and like to work alone until they’re ready while others what feedback from day one on “what works.” How do you work through the creative process, both alone and with your dancers? And I know that you often work collaboratively with actors, musicians, and other artists. What’s the feedback process like for you?
I think that when you are in conversation or dialogue with your internal voice, you don’t want feedback. You want your voice to be clear. It’s not like Hollywood where they send out a film and get consensus on an ending from a demographic and go back to the studio where the end result is money making. Your point is that you want to offer something to mankind that will uplift them, that will stir them, that will awaken a memory of what they really are. The giving is to humanity and if something is going to be given, it wants to have value. So when you are having dialogue with the muse, what you’re interested in is accuracy and listening really well. In terms of listening, you also want to see. Sometimes when you are constructing something, you’ll see that something is emerging, and you want to get out of the way. And so the process is not really a secret, it’s the same process that has been with us since time primordial, and that is, “Get the ego out of the way so that you can receive information and see and hear and feel clearly.” And that’s the work.
Everyone, everything is a collaboration. When I have to get out of bed in the morning, I have to talk to that body and say, “C’mon!” And the dancers who I’m working with aren’t Lego pieces; they’re human beings, and they all come with a lifetime of experience and observation and understanding, and so that’s what you’re working with, their understanding. What we do is we get together and say we’re building a house, and the kitchen is going to be here, and the house is going to be by the sea, and the house is going to be blah-blah-blah-blah, and we all agree to pitch in.
Do you ever second-guess yourself or question yourself down the line? It sounds like you’re very content with what you put on the stage and what you produce.
I think that choreography is like writing. You really want to be succinct. If it’s too wordy or if your ideas aren’t clear, what’s the point of being verbose, right? So in choreography, the point is clear communication. If you talk to people and listen to most people, they aren’t clear!
So you say, “What are they talking about, what is he saying?” And that’s why we listen to vibration. The words that are coming out of people’s mouths and what they are really saying are often two different things. With choreography, you want to get to the essence of what’s being said. You want to get to form before the word begins to form in the brain to get to the mouth, so you’re talking about primordial things. That’s why when people observe choreography, they miss so much if they’re being intellectual because intellect is not how you really understand depth, you know. Intellect is not how you understand scripture; that’s why so much of it is so misconstrued. Intellect is not how you feel love. Intellect is not how you give love. And so as wonderful as it is, it has a ceiling, but that intuitive place of communication, tuning into vibration, and allowing yourself to feel something that is denigrated in our society in the same way we connect feeling with women and put it down. And all things feminine, we step on without realizing that that Eve part of us is so wise and so deep and hugely important.
Intuition is the bottom line where it doesn’t need validation, but you know, regardless of the sun and how bright it is, that you should bring an umbrella. Not because a newscaster told you, but you know. There’s an inner communication that you’ve developed with yourself. And so back to your question about editing, you don’t want anything frou-frou, nothing superfluous, you want it to be just what it is in the same way that cooking now–who wants tons of sauce to cover something? If you’ve got a great tomato that’s a really good tasting tomato and an avocado that’s really ripe and it’s a delicious avocado, what more do you need?
So part of the goal with the “Dance Flash” column is to encourage people to open their minds to different types of dance or new experiences. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for a ballet audience member or a new dance goer?
I think that if people like truth or beauty, people who go to nature, people who like something well done. If its dance and not well done, it’ll disappoint you. If it’s food and not well done, it’ll disappoint you. You know, it’s interesting to me. When I observe the world, I can’t see anything that is not dance; everything is measure or force, manipulation of
energies, spacial relationships. Whether it’s the gravity that balances the universes, the constellations, the way that we deal with each other, either negatively or positively, everything is a dance. Everything is sound and motion. In the big bang theory, what came first, movement or sound? They’re inextricable. If I see a great film as dance, I see a good movie as dance, and if you observe in our world what isn’t working: houses that are hideous, cars that don’t make sense, architecture that is ugly, schools that are run poorly
and don’t consider the brilliance of the child, it’s because art is missing.
And so if people are looking for beauty, you know, I’d go to a sunset, I’d go see art, and so it’s the same thing. The idea that theatrical dance is separate from life, that’s where I think the falsehood is. That if something’s beautiful, I don’t care what it’s called. Let’s go take a look at it. If something’s good, let’s examine it.
You’ve mentioned sunsets and the horizons. Do you have a favorite place in the Bay Area where you like to go and see the horizon?
Yes, but if I tell people, they’re all going to go there!
What: Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s Fall Season 2009
When: October 23-25 and October 28 – November 1
Where: Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Tickets: 415.978.2787 or www.ybca.org/tickets