Interview with Alonzo King: Talking About LINES Fall Season, Shostakovich and More

Eight days before opening night, LINES Ballet rehearses in their studio on 7th Street and Market, a few floors up from the urban desolation of the indigent itinerants who roam the zone between the UN Plaza and the Opera House. The company of 11 dancers seems a city unto itself, their several bodies deep in conversation with the choreographic puzzle and the negotiation of space, each absorbed in a different section of choreographer Alonzo King’s newest creation to excerpts from three of Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets — to be called, he explains, merely Shostakovich.

[jump] The movement and the music begin with urgency, the strokes of the strings and the sweep of the limbs simultaneously making neat incisions through the previously uninflected air. Brief solos emerge as textural differences within a controlled bacchanalia of weighted, angular movements in unison, before a series of duets begins, pair after pair of bodies that maintain proximity as they strain along the limits of the tension created between the clasp of hands, hooked elbows, the plunge of a shoe into the floor. King doesn’t let them get far before stopping them.

“This line is not in agreement,” he remarks about the ensemble work, requesting that the dancers mutually settle the movements and how to execute them. Later he says, “I’m looking for something familiar that I can let go of,” the words of a choreographer both familiar with his craft and confident in the abilities of the many minds at work in the room. 

Described by many as a “visionary,” King might also be said to occupy a revisionary stance on ballet. Ballet, he explains, was “poisoned” by its Renaissance association with royal patronage.

“What is your focus when you’re dancing for the king? He can change your entire life!” he exclaims. “So there’s a corruption from materialism. Forms turn into idolatry because people don’t connect them with their original meanings.”

Classical dance, he contends, is neither a style of movement nor the works that were created in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, which are only “products of a science of movement.” Instead, he explains, classical dance is “the understanding of the physical as well as the internal cosmos in form—the same information that was given to Ptolemy and Copernicus. It is about form and symmetry and law and order being primary.”

Furthermore, he argues, it is “another corruption” that the classical ideal is western.

“You will find in Burma, you will find in China, you will find it in west, central, north, south Africa, you will find it in India,” he says. He adds:

“It’s absurd to imagine that Catherine de Medici threw a ball and all of a sudden this came out. It’s ridiculous! People are uncomfortable thinking that knowledge was brought to Europe by Muslims—by Islam—by the Moors. They brought architecture—they brought science and medicine and operations—they brought the Greek classics. All of that information—do you think their ideas about dance didn’t come into that world? Where does the term pavane come from? Where does the term arabesque come from? Let’s talk plain talk!” 

“To be really blunt,” he continues, the classical ideal is the “spiritual ideal. People gag when they say that word, because they associate spiritual talk with unintelligence.” But, he says, we would be foolish to rely on our senses: “‘Ah, that looks like a crow in the sky. It’s black so it may be a crow’ — when in fact it’s just a piece of carbon that’s flying somewhere.” To compensate for the misinformation of the senses, he suggests, “the final frontier is inner space. We’re here to discover who we are.”

Deciding to work with Shostakovich’s music, which spanned the darkest days of the soviet regime, is a reminder of the imperative to create and the consolation and illumination creativity provides.

“[Shostakovich] reminds me of so many artists who go through so much suffering and yet they continue to make beautiful, sometimes bright, works that have nothing to do with what they’re experiencing, and that is so damn encouraging,” says King. “No matter what, do the work.”

LINES Ballet presents Fall Home Season at 8 p.m. Nov. 14-23 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, (700 Howard St.). Tickets are $25-$100; linesballet.org

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