Removing Mystery, Myth of Ballet : For Alonzo King, Mixing Forms Is Part of Tradition


For those who are troubled by tutus, Alonzo King is just what the doctor ordered. The choreographer may be one of the fastest-rising stars of the ballet world, but audiences don’t go see his work expecting yet another staid “Swan Lake.”

As likely to choreograph to the blues as Bach, King strips away the moldy stereotypes that have long clung to classical dance in America, offering instead a new take on an old form.

Like many of the most vital American artists, King redefines, re-energizes and personalizes a classical style by suffusing it with an eclectic mix of cultural forms, including those drawn from his own African American heritage.


Yet, as the artist himself points out, he’s hardly the first to be inspired by seemingly disparate and unrelated sources. “That process has always been happening, from Greek theater to what people now call classical ballet,” says the congenial King over lunch in a Westwood restaurant earlier this week.

“At its conception when it was contemporary, [ballet] was deriving information from countless cultures that aren’t recognized, [such as] the huge influence of the Moors in Europe,” he continues. “There’s nothing that really exists by itself. That information is coming from somewhere.”

Clearly the Mixmaster method works for King. His approach has won fans in influential places.

Ballerina Natalia Makarova, for whom King has created solo works, calls him “one of our nation’s foremost choreographers.” Choreographer William Forsythe deems him “one of the few true ballet masters of our time.”

King has created works for great companies around the world, including the Joffrey, Frankfurt, Dresden, Washington and Hong Kong ballets. And this spring the Joffrey Ballet will premiere its version of his “String Quartet” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, while Dance Theater of Harlem will premiere a new King work at the same venue.

Los Angeles audiences will be able to see why these bastions of ballet have been wearing out their toe shoes beating a path to King’s door when his San Francisco-based Lines Contemporary Ballet performs at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater tonight and Saturday, presented by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts.


The program features the Southern California premieres of two 1995 works: “Rock,” with a score by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and “String Quartet,” to music by Pawel Szymanski. Also on the bill will be “Ocean” with music by jazz great Pharoah Sanders and “Poulenc Pas de Deux.”

Fundamentally, King says, the style’s not the thing. “What people really work with, and what I’m fascinated by, are ideas. The same ideas that man has been asking himself since the beginning of time: ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ ”

The answers to those two questions, in King’s case, both trace back to an early exposure to the arts.

Born in Albany, Ga., King, who declines to give his age, grew up shuttling between divorced parents in Santa Barbara and New York. His mother, an amateur modern dancer, introduced him to dance when he was just 10.

King went on to study on scholarship at the School of American Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre School in New York, and at CalArts and elsewhere. Subsequently, he danced with such companies as Dance Theater of Harlem, the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company and the Honolulu City Ballet before leaving the stage in 1980 to make his way as a choreographer.

In 1982 he founded Lines, a 14-member multiracial troupe. When the company appeared at Pepperdine University last year, The Times’ Lewis Segal wrote: “In his pursuit of the deepest, most sophisticated modernism in classical dance, King has a way of making other ballet choreographers look crude if not downright inane.”


The essence of his aesthetic, King says, is an attempt to see beneath the surface of style. “Often, people will make all kinds of assumptions because of the appearance of things,” he says. “For me, I’m really interested in what’s behind appearances.

“For all the things that I’m fascinated with in terms of shape, form and design,” King continues, “what I’m really interested in is trying to get to the kernel of truth somewhere.”

In applying this notion to dance, King says that contemporary audiences tend to get hung up on preconceived notions, unable to look beyond ballet’s most superficial qualities.

“People equate a certain kind of body, a certain kind of look, a certain kind of behavior and a certain class with ballet,” he says. “They’re looking at things that have become stereotyped: tutus, white girls from middle-class families [and] ‘Swan Lake.’ ”

It is, King says, a problem that traces back to the origin of the genre. “Because of the Romantic era in Western Europe, when ballet was supported and codified by royalty, classical ballet has had all of these stigmas attached to it.

“The same ideas and universe that gave Copernicus his information supplied ballet with its information,” King says. “So it’s difficult for people to look at it because of what they’ve been told it is.”


An analogy, the choreographer suggests, is how we think about what’s considered attractive. “The same way that in America the media equates a blond with beauty, when people look at dance, they don’t look at ideas,” he says. “People have this idea that ballet is classist, elitist and superior. That may have been a stage of its journey. But it really has nothing to do with what it is now.”

* Lines Contemporary Ballet, UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Wilshire Boulevard at San Vicente Boulevard, tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m. $28.50-$31.50. (310) 825-2101.