Personal Impact

Personally, I find Alonzo King’s work incredibly inspiring.  Not only that, but I find many of his philosophies on dance, art, and life in general ring true for me.  His choreography demonstrates his deep understanding of the systems of classical forms while simultaneously exploring a complex, contemporary philosophy on life and his art.

As someone whose background lies predominantly in classical ballet, I can appreciate the way King sees ballet as a system based on geometry and the functions of the body.  Of course, it did not start that way while in the courts, but, over time, dancers and instructors refined it into an advanced and fairly comprehensive system.  King does not ascribe to the idea of retaining balletic concepts out of tradition.  Instead, he mines them for what is successful and useful.  He finds the lines, the proportions, the balance, and the other concepts that have fascinated the artists of ancient Greece, of the Renaissance, and Petipa, Taglioni, and Balanchine.  He then blends these with his training in Modern dance forms, improvisation, his study of Yoga, and interactions with artists from different backgrounds and traditions.  This pluralistic approach to creating art seems infinitely honest to me, in that King is embracing the complexity of his own background and existence, and the nature of his artform.  He does not reject the past out of a simplistic and reactionary notion of being contemporary.  Rather, he looks at the things from both the past and the present that seem valuable to him.  Even though King does a great deal of thinking about his artform and his approach to life (as becomes clear in any interview with him) he does not let his dancers merely rely on his brainpower.  He talks about how he asks his dancers to reach beyond their comfort zones and to surrender themselves fully to their art.  He wants dancers who are intelligent and think for themselves but who are also willing to let go of their ego in an almost sacrificial, devotional service to their art.  They must be consumed by the dancing and by what they are saying in order to meet his standards.  To me this is the essential part of Alonzo King’s work that takes it from an astounding technical display to a work of art.  His choreography demands incredible precision, athleticism, flexibility, and command of the body; his dancers beautifully represent the epitome of the human body.  Watching the LINES dancers perform his choreography live rejuvenated my appreciation and love of the capabilities of the body.  That physicality, however, is only the foundation of his work.  His dancers are not just there to do flashy moves and farm the audience for applause. Instead they give the same intense, concentrated attention to even the seemingly insignificant movements and moments.  To me, this is where the profundity of the art lies.  It is the dedication of every part of their highly trained bodies to what has been put before them.  It requires mental and emotional conviction and discipline as much as it does the physical.

If I could invite Alonzo King to a rehearsal, I would have endless questions for him.  I think my first would be about how he inspires these things in his dancers.  How do you choreograph the human being as well as the steps?  I would love to know just how much of the personalities of his dancers shines through.  When seeing his work in performance and hearing a talk-back with his ballet mistress, I could see that some of the performers were a little sassier or a little more direct, or more playful.  That did come across to me, and I loved seeing it because it balanced the dedication to the choreography, the idea, and the artform with an acknowledgement of the individuality of each performer.  The talk-back also addressed the change in that quality that occurs when the piece is restaged on different performers.  I would want to ask about how Mr. King navigates those shifts.  I would also love to know his process for generating and structuring a piece.  The classical components usually blend so seamlessly with the unexpected and contemporary components, and I would love to know whether that is intuitive, or whether he works on a case-by-case basis, or whether he has a system.

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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/>

 

Artistic Lineage

When Alonzo King decided to dedicate himself to the study of dance after high school, he started at the Harkness School of Ballet, then moved on to the Alvin Ailey Dance School and the School of American Ballet.  Between the Ailey School and the School of American Ballet, Alonzo King can claim artistic lineage to some of the greatest dancers, choreographers, and innovators of the 20th Century.  Certainly, this provided a stable foundation from which to push into the 21st Century as has been said of King.

While at the Ailey School, King would have been exposed to a style and philosophy that connected directly to Lester Horton.  As described in an article in The Guardian entitled “Step-by-step Guide to Dance: Alvin Ailey,” Horton trained Ailey, who later took over his company. The article also references Ailey’s use of ballet in the lower body with its articulation and extended lines, but a freer, modern upper body.  In King’s work the strength of Horton-based dance can be easily seen in the impressive physical feats performed by the dancers.  King also embraces the technicality and lines of ballet while simultaneously utilizing contractions, angular lines, and unexpected shapes.  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. Ailey also incorporated jazz dance, social dance, and ritual dances.  Once again King seems to have taken this concept and pushed it to the next level by not only incorporating elements, but fully investigating the dances and art forms from across the human race and collaborating with practitioners of these arts.  King’s style resembles the athleticism and physical prowess present in the Ailey style, though King’s sees the performers focused more inward toward truly embodying their art rather than outward to the audience as is common in Ailey’s work.

At the School of American Ballet, King would have been exposed to Balanchine ballet technique.  Balanchine revolutionized ballet for the 20th Century, just as King has revolutionized it for the 21st.  The stylistic influence can be seen in his use of extended lines and structured arrangements of dancers.  The Balanchine philosophy of perfecting the body and discipline for the sake of the art can be seen in King, who will often say that he and his dancers need to work “in service to the art.”

In the book Dance Masters: Interviews with Legends of Dance, Janet Lynn Roseman notes that after this training, King went through a process of “Reexamining the dance training that he had received, and recognizing the training that was lacking for dancers.”  King is then quoted as saying “’In my training as a dancer, I found that there were two things that were missing. One was the spiritual force and the other is the concept that “it is within you,” so that the idea of training would be to bring “it” out or to remove the obstacles to do “it.”’”  He developed an approach to dancemaking and to training dancers that attempted to address the body, as well as the mind and the spirit.  While the mind and spirit were concerns for both Ailey and Balanchine, those elements are easily lost as a school and a technique continue after its creator is gone.  Alonzo King, at least, did not feel them present to nearly the levels he considered essential.  Instead, he tries to train and nurture the whole dancer so that they in turn can provide a full experience to the audience.  He requires physical prowess, an open mind, self-discipline, and a willingness to push past one’s comfort zone.  He uses structured improvisation to help his dancers achieve these goals.  To further his goals of stimulating the mind and the spirit through his choreography, King has collaborated with artist from around the world.  He has entered into collaborative efforts with jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, Japanese composer Miya Masaoka, Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, and Pygmy artists from the Central African Republic, among others, along with traditional songs from a variety of cultures and times.  He brings world cultures to his audience in a form that does not require a translation dictionary.  Rather, they speak languages common to all humanity: sound and movement.

An online article from the Washington University in St. Louis eloquently states, “His choreography both embodies and reveals the essential, underlying qualities that define ballet itself — the rigor, the mathematical precision, the sense of proportion rooted in the human body.”   Strongly rooted in the history and lineage of his art form, his choreography also embodies and reveals the essential qualities of dance: dedication, wholeness of expressions, endless possibility, and universal human connection.

Roseman, Janet Lynn. Dance Masters: Interviews with Legends of Dance.  New York: Routledge, 2001. Web.  27 September 2015.  <http://books.google.com&gt;

Otten, Liam.  News. “Edison Ovations Series welcomes visionary choreographer.”  Washington University in St. Louis:  8 February 2013. Web.  27 September 2015.  < http://news.wustl.edu&gt;

Roy, Sanjoy.  The Guardian. “Step-by-step Guide to Dance: Alvin Ailey.”  Guardian News and Media Limited: 9 September 2010.  Web.  27 September 2015.  < http://www.theguardian.com&gt;

“Choreography.”  Alonzo King Lines Ballet. 2015.  Web.  27 September 2015.  <https://www.linesballet.org>

 

 

Alonzo King – Introduction

Alonzo King was born in 1952 to Valencia King Nelson and Slater King.  The family lived first in Georgia, and then moved to Santa Barbara.  According to BlackPast.org, his father and uncles were active in the advancement of African American civil rights.  His mother created AfriGeneas to track African American genealogy and ancestry.  His upbringing would have been immersed in the importance of his cultural roots as well as an eye toward the future.  Rather than these elements of past and future working at odds, they complemented and strengthened one another.  Perhaps this prepared him even at an early age for his future career of what the Jacob’s Pillow Creativity Award called “moving ballet in a very 21st-century direction.”

Alonzo King has taken the venerable dance tradition of ballet and infused it with “new expressive potential,” as stated by Linesballet.org.  To achieve this, King collaborates with artists of various disciplines and cultures and uses structured improvisation.  He calls his pieces “thought structures.” Notable works in collaboration with non-western movement traditions include People of the Forest (2001), which was choreographed alongside Baka artists from Central African Republic, and Long River High Sky (2007), which collaborated with Shaolin Monks.  He views ballet not as a series of steps with a static aesthetic, but as a system of understanding and organizing space, movement, time, and the body.  Linesballet.org calls it “universal, geometric principles of energy and evolution.”

In 1982, King founded the Alonzo King Lines Ballet, a touring company based in San Francisco.  Dedicated to realizing King’s vision for an ever-evolving ballet, the company’s artistic vision includes the stated goal “exploring the possibilities of movement from a global perspective, and to renewing – and transcending –traditional ballet.”  King’s choreography requires athleticism, flexibility, musicality, intelligence, and training, but in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he notes that above all, his dancers must possess fearlessness.  He continually asks them to reach outside their comfort zones, to commit body and soul to the process, and to be engrossed with their art.

Alonzo King’s work appears in the repertoire of many companies including Swedish Royal Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Hong Kong Ballet, North, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  He has also worked in opera, television, and film.  He has been honored with honorary Doctorates from Dominican University of California and California Institute of the Arts, numerous Isadora Duncan awards, the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Corps de Ballet International Teacher Conference, the Jacob’s Pillow Creativity Award, the US Artists award, and New York’s Bessie Award for Choreographer/Creator, among others.  He was called a “San Francisco treasure” by both the San Francisco Museum & Historical Society and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when he presented King with the Mayor’s Art Award.  His company has appeared at the Venice Biennale, Monaco Dance Forum, Maison de la Dance, the Edinburgh International Festival, Montpellier Danse, the Wolfsburg Festival, the Holland Dance Festival, and Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris.  King furthers the exploration of dance as an art form by engaging in numerous teaching endeavors including the Line Ballet Training Program, the Lines Ballet Summer Program, master teaching engagements, and the Alonzo King Lines Ballet BFA program at Dominican University of California.  Through these, he and his faculty share his vision of an expressive, inclusive, 21st-century ballet with the next generation of dancers and dancemakers.

“About.”  Alonzo King Lines Ballet. 2015.  Web.  20 September 2015.                                                    <https://www.linesballet.org/company/&gt;

“Alonzo King.”  Alonzo King Lines Ballet. 2015.  Web.  20 September 2015.                                          <https://www.linesballet.org/company/&gt;

“Artistic Vision.”  Alonzo King Lines Ballet. 2015.  Web.  20 September 2015.                                       <https://www.linesballet.org/company/&gt;

BlackPast.org. “King, Alonzo (c.1952- ).”  BlackPast.org.  2015.  Web.  20                                                September 2015.  <http://www.blackpast.org/aah/                                                          king-alonzo-c-1952>

“Family History.”   Alonzo King Lines Ballet. 2015.  Web.  20 September 2015.                                      <https://www.linesballet.org/company/&gt;

Molzahn, Laura.  ”Job No. 1, you must be fearless: Alonzo King LINES Ballet.”                                      Chicago Tribune.  18 March   2015.   Linesballet.org. 20                                                  September 2015.  <https://www.linesballet.org/                                                              media-ssl/uploads/news/Chicago_Tribune_3.2015_1.pdf>