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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 10, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Dance & Music for Eye, Ear, and Soul
Alonzo King loves movement. He knows its truth across
the ages. And he knows that movement does not lie. "When I was
a child, one of the first things that struck me was the way people
moved. No matter what they said, it seemed it was the way they moved
that told the true story," King said recently.
The choreographer and dancer grew up making dances in Albany, Georgia,
but when he arrived in the ballet studio he immediately sensed
this was home." The elements that resonated for King were not
the mincing steps and courtly conventions of 16th-century Europe.
Quite the contrary. From an early age he recognized European ballet
for its deep-rooted connection to all dance — to the truths of
geometry, symbolism, and a quest for transcendence that he traces
back to ancient Egypt.
King says that the lines customarily drawn between various dance
are inaccurate and arbitrary. Where some see difference, he sees
Although he’s a devotee of classical ballet, he believes we
ballet’s continuity with world dance. "All the principles that
are in classical ballet are in the geometry brought to Europe from
the Arabs. So I look on it as a science of movement. Most people think
of it as a style and they associate it with the Romantic period in
Europe. It’s not a style. It’s a language that can be used in a
The big, genial King is artistic director of Lines Contemporary
the company he founded in 1982. Based in San Francisco, Lines Ballet
has toured the U.S. and internationally, and its work has been
with its home-town Isadora Duncan Dance Awards. The company’s home
theater is the city’s new Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, located
directly across from the vaunted new San Francisco Museum of Modern
Working in collaboration with his company of dancers, some of whom
have been with the company almost since its founding, King is the
maker of some 165 dances in which he has created a personalized dance
language that explores and extends boundaries. Although his movement
vocabulary is firmly rooted in the classical canon — much of it
executed with the uncompromising authority of pointe work — King
taps into the expressive arsenal of modern dance structures to create
compelling works that enter through the heart.
His works are in the repertoires of 50 companies, among them Frankfurt
Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Dresden Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem,
Joffrey Ballet, and the Washington Ballet. His commissioned work for
the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, "Following the Subtle
Current Upstream," was performed in that company’s program at
McCarter Theater in Princeton in May, 2001. Last summer he led a week
of master classes for Philadelphia dance professionals sponsored by
Although many companies boast contemporary works by King, his dances
never look quite as powerful as when they are performed by his
company of 12 dancers. Lines’ wide-awake dancers are fully present
in the moment, sharing freely of themselves and their dance vision.
King’s movement passages can surprise, even shock. A pointe shoe may
paw the ground like the hoof of an impatient pony at one moment and
elevate its wearer to a gorgeous classical arabesque at the next.
Languid, trance-like movement passages may be followed by fast,
ballet, brilliantly executed by any one of this versatile ensemble
of soloists. While one man is swept up in the momentum of successive
fast turns, another crawls softly across the floor, as vulnerable
and meandering as a newborn kitten. In group passages, the company
may become a single organism, moving through and shaping space like
a flock of birds or an advancing avalanche.
Now, in his most ambitious project to date, King is on tour with
People of the Forest," a new work created in collaboration with
Nzamba Lela, a 16-member ensemble of musician-dancers of the Aka clan
of the Mbuti (commonly known as Pygmy), from the Ituri rainforest
of the Central African Republic. "The People of the Forest,"
which had its world premiere in Gainesville, Florida, on October 5,
will be presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Victoria
Theater on Sunday, October 14, at 5 p.m. The evening-length dance
and music performance is designed to dramatize the culture of the
An immensely musical choreographer, King has
paired his dances in recent years with live performances by musicians
and composers many of whom come from outside the European tradition.
"Music is thought made audible, in the same way dance is thought
made visible," says King. "The bottom line for me is the
behind form, making the invisible visible. The vessel has to be empty
for the spirit to enter." Since 1994 his musical collaborators
have included Pharoah Sanders, Zakir Hussain, Hamza El Din, Bernice
Johnson Reagon, Miguel Fransconi, and Leslie Stuck. He says "The
People of the Forest" arose from a commitment to create
ballet with a variety of multicultural music and a shared sense of
King became acquainted with music from the Ituri forest by way of
field recordings by Colin Turnbull; music of the people of Central
Africa appears in five of King’s company works, as well as commissions
for North Carolina Dance Theater and Dance Theater of Harlem.
music is unaffected, devoid of artifice, and deeply moving," he
says. "It is what music should be — what can’t be described
in words, and transports you to another place."
The Aka, a minority population in the former French colony, are one
of the world’s last surviving hunter-gatherer societies. For the
culture of the Aka, music and song is as much a part of life as
eating, and breathing. Mbuti music blends individual voices in
choral polyphony, intertwining voices and vocal timbres in both
and regular voice. Musical instruments are used, but because of the
group’s nomadic lifestyle, instruments are light and mostly ephemeral,
such as drums and whistles carved of branches.
Although the impression is one of freedom and fusion, Mbuti music
is rigorously organized. One person is responsible for leading the
songs and the dance, the two being closely linked. Once begun, the
song becomes a collective effort; except for certain ritual practices,
all members of the community — men, women, and children —
participate equally. For the Nzamba Lela ensemble, sharing their music
has become a means of supplementing their income, while maintaining
their cultural identity and gaining attention for the problems
from the encroachment of development on their homeland. The company
has performed in Europe, in Bahia, and in festivals in Africa; this
is its first U.S. tour.
The collaboration was helped along by San Francisco presenter Nancy
Martino, performing arts curator of the Yerba Buena Center in San
Francisco. In 1999, with a grant from Africa Exchange and Yerba Buena,
King was able to visit the Aka artists in their own land. He flew
into Bangui, the capital city, and traveled by jeep and canoe into
This summer King traveled to Montreal with Lines co-director and
designer Robert Rosenwasser to meet Nzamba Lela in the last leg of
their Canadian tour. They rented a theater space to work out some
staging and lighting ideas. "Working with Nzamba Lela reminded
me how powerful a thing it is to listen," says King. "They
are great listeners; present and absorbed in their work. They are
interior and beautifully self-possessed."
The dance-making process continued with five-weeks’ preparation by
King and Lines Ballet in California, working both in silence and with
Nzamba Lela recordings. The collaboration was advanced by the
for a two-week shared residency at the Gilman Foundation’s White Oak
preserve near Jacksonville, Florida. However, the planned period of
collaboration (which King had already described as "daunting"
for its brevity) was disrupted by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Set to meet at White Oak on September 15, the Lines company arrived
just one day late, but Nzamba Lela was prevented from traveling for
more than a week. Nevertheless, the work was accomplished within the
Raised in Albany, Georgia, and in Santa Barbara, California, King’s
father was Slater King, a leading civil rights activist. Slater King
was also a real estate broker and a prominent member of Albany’s
community. Alonzo’s parents and grandparents were graduates of Fisk
University. Slater King was also a follower of Rama Krishna and
Alonzo and his siblings to meditation at an early age. "We had
a meditation room in the house where he made the children go for three
minutes at a time," he recalls.
Alonzo King’s mother, Valencia King Nelson, was an
dancer who belonged to an interpretive dance group at Fisk. While
he was growing up his parents divorced but maintained close, family
relations, even vacationing together with their children after each
Asked for his earliest dance memory, King says, "I think that
I never ever stopped dancing, so I don’t feel like I began dancing.
It was just something that was with me. And so when people talked
to me about `this is dancing’ or `this is a career’ or `this is a
job’ — I never thought of it that way. It was just dancing.
"My mother would show me things when I was a kid. I was always
surrounded by music. Always people from different cultures were coming
into the house. And there would always be a moment when they would
show dances or play music or talk about things that they believed
King began ballet training as a child and in his teens went to New
York to train at the Harkness School of Ballet, at the Alvin Ailey
Dance School, eventually studying on full scholarship and stipend
at the American Ballet Theater School. "I felt ballet was home.
I felt that it was universal and limitless in ways that I had felt
limited by other forms. I felt that it was unlimited," he says.
He performed with the Harkness Youth Company, in Europe, and with
the companies of Donald McKayle and Lucas Hoving, before leaving New
York to work with modern dancer Bella Lewitzky in Los Angeles, a
he says who "moved me because of her huge devotion to the
Throughout his career King has also been much in demand as a coach
of other dancers. "For me, choreography is a language that
more clearly than the language of words. My ballets — all a
of one another — are my song," says King.
In the context of its immersion in the music and philosophy of other
cultures, Lines Ballet’s company of dancers is something of a United
Nations in itself. Its members currently include a young Kirov
a Swiss dancer from Maurice Bejart’s company, African-American
a Dane, a Japanese-trained dancer, and alumni of the Berlin Ballet,
London Festival Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
King says his interest is in the spirit behind form; this is what
he counts on his dancers to understand and make manifest. "My
dancers let the most vulnerable part of them show, but in the most
heroic sense," he says. "The thing that I like about dancers
and I love about the art are the things that I admire in people. If
there’s a naturalness in dancing, if there is conviction, if there
is a sense of humor, if there is someone who’s brave, if someone is
daring — character is what you’re really looking at."
Over the past century, art makers have been among the world’s most
persuasive cultural ambassadors, reaching out across boundaries to
recognize shared interests, goals, and practices. Now, as Americans
take an unaccustomed look at neighbors around the globe, King’s vision
holds the promise of further understanding.
"The union of things has always been more powerful to me than
the separation of things," says King, who is a follower of
Yogananda. "There is no separate idea. They come from some kind
of universal principle," he adds, quoting the man who founded
America’s first transcendental meditation fellowship in 1920.
"Dance?" King asks rhetorically, "It’s everywhere: the
cosmos is rumbling; the ocean is moving; herds of cattle are moving
across the plain; stars are shooting; the sun is rising —
— Nicole Plett
Victoria Theater, Newark, 888-GO-NJPAC. LINES Contemporary Ballet
with Nzamba Lela. $25.
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