King of the dance

A true innovator celebrates 25-plus years of ballet and beyond
Caroline Rocher and Ricardo Zayas
Photo by Marty Sohl

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Alonzo King's Lines Ballet celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, but King's influence on Bay Area dance goes back further than that. Veteran dancers remember his ballet classes for the musical combinations that he gave his students in the '70s. One of them was Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre, who said, "Alonzo was a spirit master who happened to be a dancer." While she loved the challenge of the technique, she was really in his class because "he taught us to live the dance."

Not only local performers knew about King's poetic approach to ballet. Big stars like Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova never missed an opportunity to work with him when they were in town. But eventually, King needed to have his own company. These days, in addition to periodic guest artist Muriel Maffre, Lines Ballet performs with nine dancers. This year it toured from France to Poland, from Austria to Greece, in addition to performing in stateside engagements and two home seasons.

King also founded the SF Dance Center, initially to support his company financially; the now-independent center offers classes for adults in a variety of styles. He then created Lines Ballet School, which teaches according to his principles. Last year, in conjunction with Dominican University, King established a BA program that allows dancers to simultaneously pursue professional and academic studies. In other words, in addition to choreographing 74 works, King has created an institution. "I know now that we have grown so much it will be more difficult to balance humanity and creativity with effective business practices," he said in a recent phone interview. "But if I have my choice, I will go with the humanity."

Aside from his choreography, King's greatest contribution might turn out to be his challenging of preconceptions about dance, specifically ballet. To question the status quo is perhaps the birthright of this son and grandson of prominent civil rights leaders in Albany, Ga. King grew up participating in civil rights marches. His mother introduced him to dance, while his father, a follower of 19th-century sage Ramakrishna, taught him about meditation.

For King, dance is the appropriate medium for exploring a universe that he perceives to be in flux, where opposites don't stand against but hold one another in balance. Ballet for him is not a style but a language — one that, he says, would have to be invented if it didn't exist already. Ballet is abstraction; ballet is science; ballet is geometry. After all, a pirouette is a perfect circle, a tendu (stretched foot) a line that reaches into infinity. To King, ballet is a tool to investigate creativity, which, he insists, is everyone's birthright. Does he think everyone can become an artist?

"No, that's not what I mean," he explained. "But just like we all have a brain, we all have creativity. We either tap into it or we don't. For most people, when they are educated as children it is stripped away from them because they are trained to give the answer which the teacher wants, when there are multifarious choices that could be selected. The government doesn't really encourage it, because if you give people the ability to ascertain thought, to really deconstruct ideas, that's dangerous because no longer can they be sheep, but at that point they are discerning lions. And when you have 300 million discerning lions, [you've] got a problem."

King's ballets are nonhierarchical — no predetermined gender roles, no fixed vocabulary — and what looks like balletic distortion is simply an emphasis on a constantly shifting center of gravity instead of a stable focus on the body's vertical axis. Women can be strong, men tender. Early in his career he paired a tall woman with a much shorter man. It looked odd.

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