Corrections or additions?

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

Dance Advance.

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

Mbuti people.

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

prescribed time.

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

parent’s re-marriage.

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

The People of the Forest , NJ Performing Arts Center,

Victoria Theater, Newark, 888-GO-NJPAC. LINES Contemporary Ballet

with Nzamba Lela. $25. Sunday, October 14, 5 p.m.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments