Alonzo King is a rare and groundbreaking figure in several ways. He is an acclaimed contemporary ballet choreographer in a field of dance that celebrates tradition. He is the director of a successful longtime troupe, the 31-year–old San Francisco-based Alonzo King Lines Ballet, which performs Saturday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.
But perhaps his rarest role is as an African-American artist in the ballet world, where there are almost no black dancers and where King is the only well-known black choreographer. (Although Arthur Mitchell, the illustrious founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, has created ballets, his achievement is primarily as a dancer and launching the company.)
But King has never been held back by limitations, personal or artistic.
“I’m interested in what human beings have created at a high level,” King says from his home in San Francisco. “I’m interested in someone thinking as an artist and that they’re capable of doing anything.”
Raised in Santa Barbara, California, King saw his sense of possibility fostered by his father, a civil rights leader and businessman, and mother, a social worker and amateur dancer. King began studying ballet and modern dance at age 10. “I was drawn to it — attracted by its form,” he says. He will not give his age: “That’s another of those things that limit people.”
When he founded Lines, after years of performing with troupes including Dance Theater of Harlem and the modern dance artists Bella Lewitzky and Donald McKayle, he was driven by a desire to expand his creative boundaries.
“After being a sous chef you want your own kitchen,” King says. “There were a lot of things I wanted to say that weren’t being said. Ways I wanted to move.
“I wanted to remove anything extraneous and get to the heart of things.”
King may aim to zero in on essentials, but his artistic horizons are expansive ones. In addition to the many works he has made for his own troupe, he has created ballets for 25 other companies, including the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Frankfurt Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The Los Angeles Times called his work “the most sophisticated modernism in classical dance … the artistic equivalent of a shooting star.”
His choreography owes much to the way he trains his dancers and his innovations in classical dance technique. He has broken with such hallowed traditions as dancers always having to face the front of the stage.
“Ballet dancers never danced with their back to the audience,” King says. “It comes from the origins of ballet, performing for royalty — to show your rear end was considered rude. But the body is a beautiful instrument in 360 degrees, with wonderful things to say and lines and shape-making from the back that’s beautiful and that the audience did not see.”
He has also rejected the gender clichés of delicate ballerinas and stalwart cavaliers.
“The woman had to be sylph-like, and any qualities of power or depth or aggression were seen as ugly,” King says. “For men the role was support and stiffness. So the full range of what human beings are and are able to express was truncated. … There is not the cultivation of individual voice and exploration.”
His ideas and training have consistently produced dancers renowned for their combination of technical prowess, expressiveness and individuality, and they play a major role in Lines’ influence. They certainly wowed SMDCAC general manager Eric Fliss when he first saw the company two decades ago at the Florida Dance Festival in Tampa.
“I just fell in love with them,” Fliss says. “The dancers were just gorgeous, unbelievably beautiful. And I loved the work. It spoke to me — it seemed really accessible and mixed some of my favorite contemporary aesthetics with the ballet world.”
Saturday’s performance will be Lines’ first show in Miami. The company is the latest in a series of troupes headed by renowned and innovative black dance artists whom Fliss has presented at the Center — including Garth Fagan, Ronald K. Brown, Kyle Abraham, Urban Bush Women and, most recently, Uri Sands’ TU Dance. Fliss says he aims to appeal to the strong black community in South Dade, as well as to showcase an important creative strand in American dance.
“It was more of a thought-out sequence of how I wanted to engage the dance community here in this part of Miami, by working with more modern companies that are inspired by the diaspora,” Fliss says. “They’re beautiful role models for this community.”
Lines’ 11 dancers include four African Americans amid a mix of nationalities and backgrounds. That diversity makes the troupe extremely unusual in the ballet world, where — unlike modern, jazz and other styles that make up a rich tradition of black dance in the United States — there are almost no black dancers. Men, who are in short supply in ballet, have a slightly easier time. But black ballerinas in major U.S. classical companies are virtually nonexistent.
(One of the few exceptions to these prejudices was the revolutionary choreographer George Balanchine, who originally wanted his New York City Ballet to consist of equal numbers of white and black dancers, and counted the cabaret star Josephine Baker, whom he partnered on Broadway, as a muse. Balanchine also took Arthur Mitchell into his company in 1955, and featured him in important ballets.)
The situation will be the subject of a pre-show talk by Dr. Anjali Austin, a former Dance Theater of Harlem ballerina who teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She says the reasons for black dancers’ absence are complex, ranging from the high cost of ballet training to an unfounded belief that black bodies are not suited for ballet because their feet don’t point well and their muscles are too big.
Most problematic is an underlying preference — or prejudice — created by centuries of images of pale swans and sylphs.
The result, Austin says, is to discourage talent and sustain the status quo.
“If you go to a ballet performance and you don’t see anyone onstage that looks like you, it may not register that this is a possibility for you,” she says. “Artists are overlooked, devalued, stunted, not able to grow into their full creative talent. We’re artists — we put our blood, sweat and tears into this. If you keep knocking on doors and they don’t open, sometimes you leave. Alonzo King uses that talent. He not only creates, but inspires.”
King’s inspirations and themes are broadly humanist. In Miami, his company will perform Concerto For Two Violins, to Bach, and Men’s Quintet, with a score by jazz-classical-country fusion bassist and composer Edgar Meyer. A third, Writing Ground, is set to sacred Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist music. Over the years, King has collaborated with a wide variety of jazz and world music artists and done projects with an ensemble from the Baka tribe (commonly known as pygmies) from the Central African Republic and with Shaolin monks from China.
“What’s fascinating is the commonalities in cultures,” he says. “The same ideas expressed in ballet are also expressed in the movement of the Baka tribe: rising and falling; friction; lofty bounding; spiral. These are products of human beings on earth.”
While he is aware of prejudice in his art form, he does not focus on it.
“If you’re inferring that there is racism in America, it’s not just a black problem, it’s everybody’s problem,” he says. “For me it’s important that a company looks like the world, or at least reflects its community. Which you don’t see. I hire people based on their talent, and in 30 years this company has looked like everything.”
What he does focus on are the artistic essentials that ha
ve driven him since he founded Lines, and which have become even more important with age.
“The more time you spend with something, the more you learn to become succinct,” he says. “I’m obsessed with hitting the nail on the head. You get closer to it. You’re preoccupied with more and better for the rest of your life.”