The Sweat of His Brow

Alonzo King, always a notably serene man, carries an extra charge of dignity on this gray day. Though scores of urgent matters vie for his attention, he's still vicariously reveling in personal triumph: His uncle, Preston King, has just returned to the United States after 39 years of exile. In 1961, Preston King refused to report for Army service because a Georgia draft board, after learning he was black, refused to call him "Mister," as was customary for whites; three days before this interview, President Clinton had pardoned Preston's draft evasion conviction.

"I'm over the moon," Alonzo says, ducking out of a rehearsal that, most likely due to his buoyed spirits, is running uncommonly smoothly. Preston's ordeal, King says, is relevant to his own, less political, efforts. "What I admire in my Uncle Preston is persistence," he says. "And you certainly have to have that in a small arts organization, in today's climate."

In fact, only persistence will pull King's company, Lines Contemporary Ballet, through this most trying period of its 18-year history. On March 27, the San Francisco International Center, and with it the charmingly dilapidated fourth-floor studios Lines has called home since 1989, was sold to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The ballet must find a new home within two years, a less-than-luxurious time span given the city's 1 percent vacancy rate. And much more than rehearsal opportunity is at stake here. Hundreds of dancers a month regularly fork over $10 per drop-in class to study at Lines' affiliated San Francisco Dance Center; their dues directly support the company.

At the Top of Their Game: Xavier Ferla and Debra Rose.
Marty Sohl
At the Top of Their Game: Xavier Ferla and Debra Rose.

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performs April 7 through 16 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-30; call 978-ARTS or order online at www.ticketweb.com

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But there is good news in the interim. After canceling last fall's home season due to financial instability, Lines resumes its schedule of twice-yearly programs at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this Friday. "We had to regroup finally because we kept putting out and putting out," says King of the hiatus. "We spend so much on live music and it's so prohibitive -- we just had to rebuild."

And rebuild the company has. This week's lineup includes two new works by King, one tentatively described as a "tango ballet" and another set to John Cage's aleatory music. There's also a revival of last year's Tarab, with the kind of exotic live musical accompaniment (in this case, by oud player Hamza El Din) that Lines audiences have been spoiled by; and a commissioned work, to an electronic score, by choreography collective the Foundry. King is thrilled to be working with his own company again ("It's not fun to have time away from your baby," he says), and the dancers, already miracles of offbeat virtuosity, are at the top of their games.

But even this modest comeback has met with obstacles. Commissioned music for the tango ballet fell through just a few weeks ago, and King has resorted to taped music by Astor Piazzolla, to which he had already begun choreographing while waiting for the promised score. "The essential thing in a dance is to have an idea of what you want to communicate," he says, unfazed. "Philosophical, structural, even just emotional -- all of those are ideas. I think tango itself is an idea, an idea of passion and heightened awareness, and sorrow and joy, intensified emotion."

King has never been one to rely on the music anyway. His choreography -- full of urgent, torso-driven movements -- is musical in the best sense: It holds its own against a score. "The visible and the audible have to harmonize but also separate," he explains. "If the dancer is mirroring the music, they disappear. It's a conversation: There has to be a place where the music talks and a place where the dancing talks."

The tango ballet, like the Foundry commission and nearly everything else Lines does, is the brainchild of King's right-hand man, Associate Artistic Director Robert Rosenwasser. It's Rosenwasser who scouts opportunities, such as a new work, premiering next fall, to be created in conjunction with residents of the Congo Basin's Nzamba Lela village. Or another new work, premiering this fall, which will rig the dancers' movements to real-time lighting effects. It's also Rosenwasser, one guesses, who allows King to stay somewhat aloof from the hurdles his company faces. King claims issues of real estate and finance hardly touch him; he's too busy creating dances.

But after talking to King you realize he doesn't ignore adversity. He embraces it, and it finds expression at the core of his straining, powerful aesthetic. "Life is full of obstacles. You have to remain positive," he says. "When you face a challenge you employ an incredible human potential that often goes untapped.

"The main thing in dance is to maintain poise. And on a lot of levels, that's what we're doing."

 
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