The Big Picture

Alonzo King’s artistic voice draws strength from its deep roots in his personal past in order to create a stable position in the present and push into the future.  Some of the earliest and most profound influences on King’s vision come from his childhood.  Aside from his father and uncles being active in the Civil Rights Movement and the NAACP, his mother,  Valencia King Nelson, exposed young Alonzo to her artist friends from around the world, including Guyana, Japan, and Europe.  Through this early-life exposure to the artistic endeavours and mentalities of other cultures, the future choreographer would have learned two important things: an appreciation for the validity and power of the arts of different cultures, and the ways in which traditional art forms can grow into contemporary forms of expression.  Both of these elements form important components of his work today.  

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet has been in existence since 1982.  That year saw the first International Day of Peace, the inauguration of both the Epcot theme park and the Vietnam War Memorial, and the awarding of the Time Magazine Man of the Year Award to none other than “the computer.”  When people crawled out from under their protective nationalism following the fall of the Berlin wall, the political circumstances of the world did not get more orderly as time went on, but less.  The heros and villains all became much greyer, especially when looking at such disputes as the Arab-Israili conflict and others like it where no one was in the right, but no solution can be reached because no one is entirely in the wrong.  The world was entering a new phase of increasing connectivity and activity which has been compared to the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution.  The internet started an upward trajectory that has not stopped since then.  For the first time, the opinions, philosophies, sciences and arts of geographically distant lands were at people’s’ fingertips 24 hours a day.  It has become increasingly difficult to isolate one’s self in one’s own culture and viewpoints.  In today’s world, this has grown to the prevalence of social media, blogs, and internet-published articles which allow for a seemingly unending pool of the ideas of individual people.  The concept of having a single right answer is almost obsolete.  That said, the digital era is built on code and an underlying mathematical structure.  For Alonzo King, this is where ballet enters into a contemporary dialogue.  

For King, what makes ballet “ballet” has never lost its relevance.  He sees it as based on the inherent geometry of the human body, of time, and of space.  These same concepts that so fascinated Renaissance painters form the underlying structure of his contemporarily relevant works.  In an article on the website of  The New Republic, Jennifer Homans describes the consummately contemporary approach King takes to working with the arts of other cultures as “not by borrowing or fusing, which is the conventional use of such exotic origins, but by finding a path to these older traditions within ballet itself.”  King connects his dancing with the dancing, music, and art of other cultures through the human element in all of them.  He does not utilize the artistic traditions of others in order to showcase the exotic or to break out of his own movement patterns, but to offer up the intersections between people of different backgrounds.  He proceeds firm in his convictions of what is true, while allowing for what others believe to be equally true.  These are not mutually exclusive; one does not diminish the other.  Rather, they combine to enrich each other and those who view them.  While most of the dance world has pushed as far away from ballet as possible (or clung to it without fully understanding why, beyond tradition, it matters to them), Alonzo King looks to it as a foundation for expression, understanding that while these other great dance artists of the day may have the right answers, he does as well.  

Homans, Jennifer.  “The Universalist.”  The New Republic.  23 August 2012.  Web.  4 October 2015.  <http://www.newrepublic.com/article/magazine/ 105707/homans-alonzo-king-ballet-mediterranean>

“Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.”  Jacob’s Pillow Dance.  2015.  Web.  4 October 2015.  <http://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/alonzo-kings-lines-ballet/migration/>

“Choreography.”  Alonzo King LINES Ballet.  2015.  Web.  4 October 2015.  <https://www.linesballet.org/company/alonzo-king/choreography/>

Denning, Alli.  “What Happened in 1982?”  Like Totally 80’s. 27 August 2007.  Web.  4 October 2015.  <http://www.liketotally80s.com/2007/08/80s-capsules-1982/>

 

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3 thoughts on “The Big Picture

  1. “In King’s work, however, the positions, movements, and philosophies of ballet, modern, and contemporary dance are fully integrated, flowing naturally from one to the next and blurring the boundaries between them.” Could you give specific examples of these philosophies of ballet and modern dance?

    When comparing Balanchine to King…“The stylistic influence can be seen in his use of extended lines and structured arrangements of dancers.” I feel as though these two similarities between these ballet dancers are common in many other ballet choreographers as well. Could you please explain more specifically what was similar about the two choreographer’s extended lines and structured arrangements of dancers?

    “For King, what makes ballet “ballet” has never lost its relevance. He sees it as based on the inherent geometry of the human body, of time, and of space. These same concepts that so fascinated Renaissance painters form the underlying structure of his contemporarily relevant works.” I am curious as to how you got to this conclusion? From my understanding, Ballet was a sanctioned activity by the courts based on storytelling, social interactions, a highness to God, and it had folk dance roots. I think viewing ballet as geometry or space is a relatively contemporary idea, so I am not sure that this is what has always ‘made ballet, ballet’.

    It might be helpful to incorporate photos and videos into your blog posts. The visuals will back up what you are saying as well as engage your readers. I did like how you gave a short synopsis of the separate video postings. It may be nice to include your personal responses to what was in the video.

    (Also — The Long River High Sky video would not upload and the two videos at the end of the Introduction blog were completely inactive.)

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    1. Regarding the first point: In that statement I was contrasting King’s methods of integrating aspects of ballet and modern throughout the body as opposed to the Ailey method of using ballet in the lower body and modern in the upper body. As to the philosophies of ballet, I am referring to the highly specific technique and the emphasis on the aesthetic experience. Ballet values precision, a control of outward effort, the lines of the body, virtuosity, and fluidity of and between steps. For the philosophies of modern dance I am thinking specifically of expression that evolves from the inside out, unconventional, less aesthetically pleasing shapes, freedom of movement beyond codified positions, and the use of structured improvisation. For example, King gives emphasis to the lines of the body and insists on precise execution of them, but they are not necessarily codified or referential positions, and their execution is no excuse for a lack of authentic expression. His dancers are trained in ballet, and therefore find balletic avenues of moving to be a natural form of expression, but he also insists that they are as acutely in tune with their bodies as they are with their minds and spirits. This is a concept that I see as having been somewhat emphasized in modern dance and that has been even more emphasized in the contemporary era. He insists that his dancers be fully dedicated to their art and constantly push themselves physically but also push themselves past their comfort zones.

      Regarding the second point: To answer this question, I must first address the fact that the majority of major American ballet is at least somewhat influenced by Balanchine. In that way, yes, many choreographers and artistic directors of today emphasize some of these same elements. Balanchine extended lines to a much further degree than had been seen in ballet previously. Indeed, French, Russian, Italian, and British techniques still do not put the same emphasis on extended lines as Balanchine technique. I should note that when I refer to extended line, I do not only mean high legs or arched backs. I am referring to the lines of energy that run through the body. It is the extension and energizing of (in an arabesque, for example) the connection from beyond the finger tips, through the arm, through the shoulder, core, and hip, down the leg, and out past the toe. The same sense might be activated from any given point to any other given point in any position. Balanchine emphasized this connectivity through extension, and King does the same, perhaps to an even greater extent as his vocabulary of ways of arranging the body is more diverse than Balanchine’s.
      In regards to the structured arrangements, I am referring to the tendencies of both choreographers to arrange dancers in space so that they create shapes or forms among them. Actually, I suppose that structured is not the right word for it. Under the video I used the word “formal” and I think that is closer. That is, formal in the sense of creating forms, not as in traditional. They are carefully considered from an external angle to create a certain shape. Many arrangements of dancers in space serve the purposes of creating organization through patterns or of making sure the dancers can be seen. Certainly Balanchine did this, but he also often energized the space in a different, more dynamic way. The still from the clip of Scheherazade shows how King is using the forms of the dancers’ bodies to create negative space and a more complex form. Balanchine did this to a somewhat lesser degree. Think of the iconic image from Apollo with the three girls in line to create what looks like a single figure with multiple legs. Again, we see King taking some of Balanchine’s ideas and pushing them even farther. Of course King uses those less dynamic arrangements as well which might be truly called “structured,” but they can be useful at times.
      I also think it is important to approach the comparison keeping in mind that King is a contemporary choreographer who uses ballet as a foundation for his choreographies. That is different than being strictly a ballet choreographer. A lot of the ballet of today uses Balanchine’s techniques and philosophies, but I wanted to show that King has that distinct lineage (as opposed to a Vaganova or a Paris Opera Ballet background). I think it is important to see that he has the artistic lineage of this 20th Century ballet innovator (who first started to use some more modern aesthetics in ballet) and that he is now a 21st Century ballet innovator pushing the boundaries even more.

      Regarding the third point: The concept comes from King himself. Linesballet.org says in its “About” section “Alonzo King understands ballet as a science – founded on universal, geometric principles of energy and evolution – and continues to develop a new language of movement from its classical forms and techniques.” He frequently refers to ballet as a structure, as the fundamental proportions and relationships to the parts of the body. Those proportions have never changed. They are there in all dance whether a person realizes it or not when they are doing that dance. Ballet has just managed to develop them. To him that is what defines ballet.
      What you say about ballet is, of course, true, but only in the earliest forms. I guess I have a bad habit of viewing that era as a sort of “proto-ballet,” so perhaps “always” is a little too strong of a word. As soon as ballet started developing codified techniques, though, people wanted to get better, and so (probably by trial and error and simplistic observation) people eventually came across what works best. Turn out allowed the head of the femur to fall into place in the hip so that the leg could lift higher, etc. Of course it was in service to a specific aesthetic, but as soon as you started to have people making their entire careers in ballet, those people would naturally want to figure out a system that worked. Certainly by the 20th century the Paris Opera had developed systems based on the body, even if they did not quite understand it as such. Undoubtedly many people do not understand ballet as such even today. They do things because they are told that they will work and then they do work and they think no further on why they work. Some of those people are accomplished professional dancers. Really good ballet dancers and teachers, though, understand the reasons behind every movement, every exercise, every placement, and every correction. They understand what the body is doing and what it needs to do to accomplish a given goal. When Alonzo King strips ballet down and builds it back up to his own purposes, those are the things that he keeps because those are the things that are universal.

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  2. *CORRECTION (in the last paragraph of my comment) – The videos included in the blog post were the same as the two posted separately. They did load as I returned to the home page a second time. So please disregard that comment! Thank you.

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