Among the highlights of LINES' Long River High Sky, a 2006 work featuring the renowned San Francisco dance company and a group of Shaolin monks from China, was a section in which a master monk presided over a series of martial arts exercises performed by a mix of monks and LINES dancers. Executed in perfect unison, the brisk kung fu chops and bracing stances easily gave the ballet dancers away — their widest second positions didn't come close to the spring-like groundedness of the monks'. Even so, they nailed the master's attack and timing with characteristic precision. A subsequent scene featured several monks emulating the fluidity of the dancers, while in another, all the performers spun, chopped, and butterfly-jumped exuberantly in their native styles. The message seemed to be that East and West have much to learn from each other, and that despite their differences, at the heart of each's cherished artistic traditions is a devotion and unique beauty worthy of celebration.
This is a favorite theme of LINES Ballet's founder, Alonzo King. It's been the driving force behind some of his most ambitious creations, not least his 2001 People of the Forest project, for which King flew 16 dancers and musicians from the Lobaye Forest of Central African Republic to San Francisco to perform.
Cultural cross-pollination reemerges in a pair of world premieres to be performed this November during the company's 25th-anniversary season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The first is a partnership with world-renowned tabla master Zakir Hussein, best known in the West for his Grammy-winning work with Mickey Hart on the album Planet Drum. "We had a huge success with Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner and thought it fitting to celebrate our anniversary program by working again with this masterful artist," says King. Unlike previous performances to scores by Hussein, including 1998's Foreigner and 2000's Following the Subtle Current Upstream, created for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and brought into the LINES repertory in 2006, Hussein will play live for all of the anniversary performances. The second premiere on the bill features the Philharmonia Chamber Players, a selection of musicians drawn from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
On the surface, King's collaborators couldn't appear more different, but they overlap in surprising ways. Both the tabla and Baroque traditions rely on complex musicality and improvisation around an established theme. The possibilities for counterpoint with the dancers are endless. Intricate rhythmic exchanges between choreography and musical score have become a hallmark of King's work in recent years, as has his sensual hybrid style — a blend of fiercely defined pointe work and über-dynamic torsos evoking modern and African dance. "LINES, from its inception, has combined the best ideas of the East and West in philosophy, science, and the arts as a paradigm to build works," King says. "This program is an expression of that ideal."