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The Universalist

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

ALONZO KING is not a celebrity. He is virtually unknown outside the dance world, and even to insiders he is something of an outsider, a choreographer-monk working away with a small troupe of devoted dancers in San Francisco. It is not that his work has gone unrecognized: he has won dozens of awards and made ballets for companies as diverse as the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Royal Swedish Ballet. But King doesn’t head up a major dance company and you will not see him jet-setting between New York, London, Paris, and Moscow as the “hot” choreographers of the day are inclined to do. To know who Alonzo King is and what he is doing, you have to see his company, called LINES Ballet. You have to see his dancers. 

I first encountered King in the early 1980s at a small dance studio in the once run-down Mission district of San Francisco. He was teaching ballet and I was a young dancer, dissatisfied and a bit bored by the kind of training I had been receiving at prestigious schools of dance in New York and San Francisco. King, I had been told, was different. And so he was. Classically trained at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, among other places, he taught classes that were extremely tough and physically demanding but were never only about technique. He had a way of making everything personal, even spiritual, without ever resorting to New Age nonsense. This was California, but there was nothing “feel good” about King. He had a different tone and a different vocabulary, inspirational and almost religious in character. 

Partly, this was owed to his past. King was born in 1952 into a prominent civil rights family in Georgia. His father, Slater King, was the son of C.W. King, who founded the Albany (Georgia) chapter of the NAACP. His uncles include the civil rights lawyer C.B. King and the philosopher Preston King, who was stripped of his citizenship for draft evasion in 1961 and lived in exile in Britain until he was later pardoned by President Clinton. Slater King, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1969, managed real estate: he bought properties in all-white areas and sold them to African Americans, arranged housing for elderly African Americans, and was a pioneer in the development of low-income housing. His papers include correspondence with John F. Kennedy, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. The “Albany Movement,” aimed at desegregation and non-violent protest, was founded in his living room in 1961, and Slater was arrested with Martin Luther King Jr. (no relation) in what became a national showdown between racist local authorities and the black community, led in part by the King family. And Alonzo King’s mother is Valencia King Nelson, whose wide circle of artistic friends visited their home often, exposing King to music, dance, art, and culture from Guyana to Japan to Europe; she, too, was involved in civil rights and later founded AfriGeneas, dedicated to tracing African American ancestry. 

King has brought all of this to ballet. He has the aspect of a minister pulling people up to their ideals and articulating a big vision, which in his case is artistic but also, as he likes to point out, implicitly political. You can hear it in his cadence and timing when he teaches and works with dancers, and in his sense of mission and commitment. 

King has extraordinary dancers: beautifully trained, sensitive, intelligent, and physically elegant in ways that are rare in today’s more acrobatic and athletically inclined dance world. He never went the path of so much contemporary choreography, which uses extreme physical distortion to “update” classicism, nor has he followed the trend to fuse ballet with a variety of modern dance idioms. Instead he has remained intent on, even obsessed with, classicism, not in a hollow adherence to “tradition” or modesty (his dances are a far cry from Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty) but out of his stubborn belief in the mathematical relationships and the sense of proportion in the human body, and in the space around it, which is finally what makes ballet classical. So while most of the dance world was looking outside ballet to find a way forward, King and his dancers were focusing ever more resolutely inward.

I always liked King’s ballets because they looked so glorious to dance. Yet at times his beautiful and hyper-refined choreography seemed difficult to enter or to feel from across the footlights. There was clearly a soulful aspiration in the work, as there was in the teaching, but over the years I could not always discern the patterns and the structures of the dances—I could not see through the appealingly wrought movements to the larger picture of what he was doing or saying. All I could see was the details and the dancers: a kind of dance for dancers’ sake. 

UNTIL NOW. A recent appearance by LINES at the Joyce Theater in New York suggests a clear and far more expansive ambition: King is redirecting ballet away from its centuries-old European orientation and establishing it on a new axis. This is not ballet that looks to Paris or St. Petersburg: it is ballet— rigorous classical ballet—that takes its lead instead from Morocco and Baghdad and Jerusalem. 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. 

How does King do this, and what does it look like? Consider the ballet Resin, which King created last year. At first glance, this dance seems to have no familiar reference points in the past: it is not “classical” in the sense of sylphs or swans or court dances, nor is it in the line of twentieth-century abstract works with their spare, exposed, and even machine-like imagery. Resin is plotless, but it has a lusher, more luxurious feel than almost any ballet I have ever seen, for two reasons: its movement and its sense of ritual. The ballet’s long phrases and open-ended structure seem keyed more to the rhythms of day and night, or waking and sleeping, than to the more immediate time-frame of theater and entertainment. 

Resin, the program notes tell us, is a substance that bleeds from a tree when its bark is slashed or wounded, a sap that then hardens into “tears.” Myrrh gum and frankincense are resins. In King’s ballet, these hard gem-like “tears” pour down on the stage at various points in cones or sheets of amber hail, which the dancers move through, shower in, are battered by. Resin is the color of gold but it has the sticky feel of grit—something every dancer knows because it is also the stuff of rosin, which dancers crush with their feet and rub onto their shoes to avoid slipping onstage. (Violinists apply it to their bows.) The “tears” that rain down, then, belong to a vaguely religious past but also to the rituals of a dancer’s life, and anyone who has danced or been backstage will know the sound of its breaking under the dancers’ feet. Now it is pouring down on them—as rosin but also as resin. 

The music for Resin is a compilation of Sephardic music, past and present, from Turkey, Morocco, Israel (from the National Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem), Spain, and other points Mediterranean, including several pieces performed by the Catalan artist Jordi Savall and his group, Hespèrion XXI. The movement is fluid and malleable, with isolations of the ribs, shoulders, chest, arms, hands, and elbows, all coordinated in contrapuntal sequences that echo without exactly reproducing movements typical of North African and Middle Eastern dance forms. Yet the dancers do not—this is crucial—appear African or Arab or Eastern, even if they are drawing on a wide range of sources. 

King shares with Savall and many of the other musicians with whom he works an interest in the pre-classical and Eastern roots of Western art forms. Savall wants to draw our attention to a Mediterranean moment during the Renaissance when East and West discovered and drew freely from each other, before one became “the other” and a culture of difference and conflict arose. He does this by bringing the techniques and insights of the Early Music movement, which has brought new life to forgotten baroque scores, to bear on Sephardic music in an effort authentically to recreate the sounds of this past. In impressive collections bearing titles such as Mare Nostrum and Jerusalem, Savall tries to make us hear that, in matters of culture at least, East and West, Arabs and Europeans, Arabs and Jews, were not always violently divided.

King is interested in this Mediterranean moment, and has suggested that ballet may have Arab as well as Western roots, and may share ideas and forms with Muslim cultures. The task, as he seems to see it, is to reveal the connections—to find them within the geometrical and anatomical structures of ballet itself, or to work them in so deeply that they appear to derive from the same anatomical sources. We never feel that his dancers are performing new or foreign moves; to the contrary, the dances seem to come out of a deep exploration of how these particular musical forms make these particular—and very balletically trained—dancers move. If there are connections to other traditions, which there are, they grow from the music and from what the dancers know and discover in their own bodies. 

Unlike Savall, however, King is not really interested in historical authenticity. He is not attempting to take us back to, or to faithfully reproduce, any moment or movement in dance, be it Baroque or Romantic; European, Middle Eastern, Asian, or African. As if to make the point, the second ballet on the program at the Joyce was Scheherazade. This ballet, first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1910, to music by RimskyKorsakov with choreography by Mikhail Fokine, is still danced today by the Kirov Ballet and others—it is a kind of classic, even if it is also shameless kitsch and a deliberately exotic “Eastern” ballet made by Russians for Parisian consumption. 

King does not reproduce the ballet in the usual ways. He does not even use the original score. Instead, he invited the tabla master Zakir Hussain to rewrite the score, “after” Rimsky-Korsakov. Hussain combined ancient Persian and Western instruments and turned the ballet back through an Eastern lens. We hear the old familiar rhythms and melodies weave hauntingly through driving rhythmic drum dances and the achingly lyrical sounds of the duduk (a double-reed instrument from Armenia and the Caucasus) and the nay (an end-blown flute featured in classical Arabic music). 

Of course Scheherazade itself has this kind of history. The story has no known author and there was never a set text; it came out of Persia, medieval Baghdad, Egypt, and elsewhere with themes drawn more widely still. The core text may originally have been Syrian; although the version we know today probably came from a seventeenth-century French translation that was later “back-translated” into Arabic. So its history is one of breaks and gaps—of flux. What matters to King, however, is not the “messy” instability of the tradition, but the ways in which this music opens up something in him and his dancers.

THE DANCES ARE only faintly balletic. Classical ballet traditionally divides the body at the waist, separating the upper from the lower body—feet and legs from shoulders and arms. In King’s work, there is no such divide: the movement flows from the upper body through to the legs and feet such that the whole body is engaged in a mellifluous sensual style. The women are on pointe because this is the longest extension of their line, not because (as tradition would hold) they are elevated from the earth or using their points as rhythmic instruments that dig into the ground, mark time, propel them into space. Here the pointe is an extension; we hardly notice it. 

Does the dance look Oriental or classical? Is it really ballet? Does it matter? The dances that people in the nineteenth century described as ballet would have been unrecognizable to people in the seventeenth century; and the dances that people described as ballet in the middle of the twentieth century would have been unrecognizable to them both. What makes a dance “ballet” is the linear and mathematically and geometrically proportioned organization of the human body. I don’t see why it matters if the dancers are on pointe or off, on balance or off, in or out of sync, in the air or on the ground. It is ballet if it encompasses certain principles, and what it looks like after that is up to artists. Why not back-translate from French (and in this case Russian) to Arabic? 

Resin and Scheherazade are not multicultural dances, and they are not “world dance,” even though it is true that LINES is multicultural in ways that no other ballet company in the world has managed to become: the dancers come from the United States (white, African American, Hispanic), South Korea, Australia, Spain, and France, and the diversity of color, shape, and size makes the company look far more “normal” in today’s world than the white-with-splashes-of-Latin ranks of most ballet troupes. This diversity no doubt also gives the company knowledge that other companies lack. But in the end it is of no consequence where the dancers are from, because it is their training and their approach, not their ethnic or national origins, that gives them a common language. When they move, they are not self-consciously from anywhere. 

Consider the pas de deux for two men in Resin. The couple, bare-chested, begin in a state of dependence, each pulling against the other, counterbalanced with arms flowing and undulating outward like seaweed. As they begin to dance, they separate and come together, kneading the steps and movements as they go, until we feel that they are made from the same clay, even when they are apart. The dance is not amoeba-like, not just physical forms: these are human beings who rest on each other, seek independence and solace and closeness, and finally, in the last moments of the dance, find themselves curled and bent, leaning and pulling on each other as they awkwardly but somehow gracefully exit the stage. 

In this dance, weight is primary—these are muscular men, and they move into and against each other with alternating force and restraint, pushing through the sinews of their own musculatures; and as they move we feel them going inside the movement, inside their own bodies, and sensing the weight of each other’s legs, arms, and bones, in ways that appear spontaneous and improvised, even though the dance is highly choreographed. The idea of using weight and improvisation between dancers to find new ways of moving is common enough in contemporary ballet, but in most dances this becomes an exercise in physical free association—I push, which makes your elbow bend, which pushes my arm back, which wraps around you, and so on. In this kind of experiment, a single initiating movement can unleash a chain reaction between two bodies, and this chain reaction, or some modified version of it, is then “set” as the dance. King’s dance is different: one man gives his weight and the other absorbs it, but they do not necessarily let it follow through—they stop the chain reaction. Instead there is a suspension, a moment of uncertainty as the impulse finds its way through the body and the dancer feels its implications, feels where it might go, but then lets it return, eventually, or pass through to a position, or line, or some principle of classical form—not balletic looking, necessarily, but symmetrical or aligned or linear, even if it is also curved and spiraled. 

The classical base in such a work is not always visible, but it is there: the dancers have a known reference point, a set of principles that ground their movements—and them. And although there is a grammar and there are rules, the language is not rigid: there is plenty of space and time within the movement for the dancers’ free will. Indeed, part of what makes the dance so riveting is that we are watching the dancers find their own way through this mellifluous movement. We are engaged because they are engaged. 

Once we are inside the movement, any distinction between physical and emotional falls away: this is a story of dancing, but also a complicated relationship between two men. King has been asked if his choreography is homoerotic, and it is true that his best dances are for men. This may have to do with King, but it also may have to do with ballet, where the traditional pas de deux for a man and a woman has become so encrusted with clichés that it would take something drastic to make us see it anew. King’s many pas de deux for men and women tend to be less distinctive and interesting. With men, by contrast, the way is more open. 

This is not, at least directly, political. King’s dances for men do not come across as “statements”—as male pas de deux so often and tiresomely do—about men dancing (or living or marrying or making love) with men. The dance looks natural—it is natural—because it starts and ends with movement. This, of course, makes the political point even more strongly. In King’s lexicon, love dances between men are not a fight or even a right; they just are. 

EVERYTHING IN KING’S dances seems to lead back to the dancers. Thankfully, they don’t go in for the false smiles, mugging, and “watch what I can do” egotism that is poisoning even some of the best dance companies today. There is no posturing or posing or showing off. King’s dancers leave all these masks behind. They are just present and working, intensely focused on what they are doing. In a way—and this is the strength of the choreography—they have no choice: the dances are so difficult and involved that rote is not an option. The work, and the state of mind, it takes to achieve this kind of immediacy should not be underestimated. It requires a rare openness and honesty. 

By honesty I do not mean that we know these dancers in the Twitter way we are lamentably coming to know many dancers today, as they rush to communicate their every mood in an effort to build a “fan base.” King’s dancers do not tell us if they have stage fright, or if they own a car or a cat or a dog, or if they like chocolate or vanilla. Instead they take a physical stance that is so open that we know, intuitively, confidently, based on the evidence of our senses in the theater, that they are telling us the truth about the dances they are performing. If they are lying, or dissembling, or putting on airs, we will know that, too. 

To grasp how unusual this kind of dancing is, it is worth recalling how degrading most ballet training has become. Too many young dancers think that the way to get a job with a ballet company is to enroll in competitions that treat ballet as sport—see the movie First Position for details. Or there is the Black Swan image of what it means to dance: starvation, self-punishment, self-absorption, and an obsessive quest for “purity” and “perfection.” And now we have the ballet TV shows, “Bunheads” and the reality show “Breaking Pointe,” whose titles speak for themselves. The major schools and companies are not immune to any of this: too often their directors can be seen judging or scooping up dancers at competitions, and everyone knows how desperate ballet companies are today to attract young audiences (all that tweeting) whatever the artistic price. 

King gives us another model. In San Francisco, the old studio where I first encountered him has relocated and grown into a busy, fully equipped center of dance, which houses LINES and a full professional dance program, along with classes open to the public. There is even an enrichment program for dancers who have completed their training but are not yet performing professionally: the idea is to enhance their physical skills, but above all to make them think. To this end, King has also developed a program in conjunction with the Dominican University of California, in which aspiring dancers study dance technique (with King and his dancers) but also take a range of liberal arts courses in the history of dance, art, philosophy, and religion. King wants dancers who are not afraid of cultivation, knowledge, and self-reflection. 

If ballet is languishing today, it is not for want of funding, or a failure of dance companies to attract the social media crowd, or a polarization between high culture and popular culture. These are all problems, of course; but the real crisis is a crisis of ideas and imagination. Too much choreography today feels locked into mere steps and technical execution—those arid chain reactions. And this locks the dancers in, too. They are not free really to dance, to think their way into and through a dance. 

Alonzo King is one of the few ballet choreographers working today who is genuinely thinking and asking his dancers to think, too. And if his choreography errs on their side—on the side of dance for dancers’ sakes—we should remember what he is trying to achieve. Who would have thought that ballet—so historically Western, hierarchical, and white—could be renewed by an African American child of the civil rights movement whose aesthetic vision and inquiring mind are pushing it out of its provincial state and into the world? LINES is not just a ballet company; it is a laboratory, an artists’ retreat, a school, a community, and a test of King’s notion of what dance and dancers can be. Wherever this leads, one thing is clear: King’s dancers are not just his dancers, they are his equals. In ballet today, that alone is a revolution. 

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic.

This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.