Since the creation of San Francisco–based Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet 23 years ago, its dancers have been a tall, leggy bunch. But these days, the nine company members are more than tall—they look like demigods capable of unearthly pretzeling and rapid-fire, full-body syncopations. For some choreographers, that would be enough. For King, such physicality is only the starting point.
“What I’m trying to do is transfer states of consciousness,” he says during a break from rehearsal, his eyes searching the air for the apt words. It isn’t enough to perform a beautiful penché. “I want the dancers to become the arabesque, and in order for them to do that I have to leave them alone to follow the ‘roadmap’ of the movement.” That means giving dancers expressive freedom to interpret the steps, phrases and timing from one performance to another, he says. With a roadmap, there is no need for the dancers to emote; the movement itself provokes emotion, because what one feels performing a pencil-point piqué is different than the sensations brought on by a more languorous turn.
“Unlike most dance companies that are more concerned with offering gymnastic feats onstage, King recognizes that the purpose of dance is transformative,” wrote Janet Lynn Roseman about LINES in Dance Was Her Religion, her book about the legacy of seminal figures Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham. As if to confirm this, the warm, 6’2” choreographer is quick to say that it is no accident that the company’s name refers to an unending trajectory through space, or that he has defined his troupe by a fundamental aspect of ballet—the dancer’s line. He is an artist who believes, as painter Mark Rothko put it, that “art must provide the implications to infinity,” not the aggrandizement of the artist’s ego.
Implications to infinity abound in King’s 2004 Before the Blues. In this ballet, he takes the ideas of suffering and redemptive freedom that frequently fill his dances and tells an oblique tale about slavery and emancipation. But Blues is also a timeless hymn depicting the struggle to exist and the anguish all human beings experience.
As elsewhere, in this ballet King creates a layer cake of symbols through a combination of spare, allusive dance encounters and a rich soundscape. The dance concludes with shimmering baroque music, golden light and Prince Credell dancing like a man redeemed through faith and love.
While the dancers themselves don’t necessarily experience directly the layers King strives for, they can sense them in rehearsal because of King’s metaphoric approach to everything he does, whether it is talking about the body as an ear or the dancers as suns. “I was drawn to Alonzo’s work because I’d never seen people move the way the dancers in this company move,” says Credell, a shy, former Ailey II dancer from the Bronx, NY. Since he started dancing with King three years ago, he says, “I feel so engulfed in the work that I don’t feel self-conscious and, in the studio, don’t even notice I’m around people.”
When Laurel Keen first saw the company as a Minnesota teenager, she was wowed. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen in dance, and I remember the rush after that first performance and being changed by it.” From then, she says, it started “a little dream in the back of my mind that one day I’d be able to do that. The physicality was really different.”
As is the method King uses to achieve it. Rather than spooling out the dance, he starts with a long phrase that encapsulates the entire work. Beginning this way, according to veteran LINES dancer Maurya Kerr, is the hard part. “When we start, he comes in and says, ‘Okay, let’s learn this.’ He gives us the phrase, and no one gets it! But what he actually wants to see is your interpretation of what he’s just done. Then he gives us a collection of phrases that everyone needs to know.”
King agrees that “just by learning the phrase, they’re getting a synopsis of the ballet. All the other movement ideas and expositions come from that.” The 15 to 20 dance fragments that slowly emerge are treated like puzzle pieces, which King fits together in ways that the dancers say is always a surprise. But it is not enough to learn one’s own part. The group has to learn each other’s phrases, both to be able to cover for one another and to be completely immersed in the work.
Juxtaposed with such thorough responsibility is a certain mystery. The company is often kept in the dark about the title of the work, the music or the name attached to a role until the last moment, says Kerr. She, for instance, had no idea she was the figure of the Sage in King’s 2004 Rite of Spring until she saw the printed program. Had she known, she says, she “might have tried to do something different with the movement” and interfered with the qualities already there.
In the end, says Keen, what King gives them through this process is freedom, “the freedom to go onstage and be totally spontaneous. He really pushes us in a way I don’t think I would get if I were anywhere else.”
Ann Murphy has been writing about dance for over 20 years for daily, weekly and monthly local and national publications.