Alonzo King LINES Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow

Alonzo King LINES Ballet was honored to perform at Jacob’s Pillow, July 15-19, 2015. The program was comprised of “Men’s Quintet”, “Concerto for Two Violins” and “Biophony”. Above is a clip from their performance of “Concerto for Two Violins”. Below is the essay written by Jacob’s Pillow Scholar-in-Residence, Suzanne Carbonneau as well as a video of the post-show talkback with moderator and Jacob’s Pillow Scholar-in-Residence Philip Szporer. It was an incredible trip to this historic dance festival and we cannot wait to have the chance to return soon!


by Suzanne Carbonneau

The PillowNotes series comprises essays commissioned from our Scholars – in – Residence to provide audiences with a broader context for viewing dance.

With its origins in the European courts as the pastime of kings and nobles, ballet traditionally has been associated with an outsized conception of grandeur. Affirming his royal image by dancing as the Sun King, Louis XIV created a virtual theater-state at Versailles, establishing court protocol and conducting diplomacy through dance. In Imperial Russia, too, ballet was suppor ted by the tsar’s privy purse and classical ballets in late 19th – century Russia reflected imperial values.

With its lack of monarchical traditions, America often has seemed at odds with this dance form grounded in the conventions of aristocracy, and American ballet has struggled to find its place in a culture suspicious of hierarchy. A reconciliation emerged, however, in a new conception of ballet as a vehicle for the expression of individual vision. George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet became a bell wether for the idea of a ballet company following the modern dance model — that is, while employing the vocabulary of the danse d’école, the company existed as a vehicle for the choreographer’s revolutionary personal aesthetic.

It is this choreographically-driven vision of a ballet company that Alonzo King embraced in forming his San Francisco – based LINES Ballet in 1982. Considered one of the most experimental of American ballet companies, LINES pushes at assumed boundaries. King himself has pointed out, however, that his choreography seems radical only because people have clung to balletic conventions associated with particular historical epochs, particularly of 19th-century Europe. In insisting that ballet be frozen in amber, referring always to the past and to European culture, traditionalists condemn the form to nostalgia and irrelevance, King says, relegating it to the status of “a useless bauble.” Rather, King believes, historical fashion does not constitute the true essence of the art form but is merely one possible expression of style.

King disavows the notion of ballet as something romantic or arbitrary by nature. He sees it rather as a science, with a set o f concepts “based on universal principles that do not vary.” These principles align with western physics as well as eastern conceptions of energy flow. In essence, King adds, “ballet is a core of ideas and the manipulation of energy to express those ideas.” These concepts allow ballet to take vastly dissimilar forms across history and geography, while continuing to address shared human experience. King points out that his own work concerns the same themes (“oppression, joy, and pain”) found not only in classical ballet, but also in aboriginal dance, in Japanese kabuki, and in break dance.

King has contributed to the evolution of ballet, reconceiving the dynamic assumptions to which the form has been historically attached. Where ballet has traditionally been associated with qualities of complaisance — that is, with the ideals of Versailles, emphasizing grace, decorativeness, and lyricism — King has thrust the form directly into the present. Its hyperdriven speed and propulsion seem at ease in the digital world, as does the aggressiveness of its rhythmic attack. King’s choreography muscles its way through space with an insistent physicality that celebrates flesh and blood, pointing up the quaintness of traditional balletic languor, a relic of days when women were idealized as immaterial. Its equalizing of gender roles and of male and female techniques hustle s ballet into the postfeminist world. It celebrates the gains to be made in risk-taking and rule-breaking: transposing and inverting bodily shape, folding lines in on themselves, activating a fluid spine. His work celebrates daring, energy, freedom and for cefulness, rejecting dancing that is “correct” for dancing that is headlong. The only thing it reveres is pushing into the unknown.

King has further pluralized ballet by his musical choices. While ballet has been inevitably linked by tradition to the European classical music repertory, King has demonstrated that there is nothing absolute about that choice. With musical accompaniment ranging through jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues, Native American, and world music, in addition to classical music, King has emphasized ballet’s ability to speak across cultures and time. Collaborators have included jazz experimentalist Pharoah Sanders and pianist Jason Moran, Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, contemporary Polish composer Pawel Szymanski, master of the oud Hamza El Din, and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

King’s work, then, urges us to jettison our expectations to see only our own sympathies reflected in ballet, and asks us instead to come to the work on its own terms. His freeing ballet from sty listic convention is an act of liberation that allows the form to seek its potential to embrace more pluralistic notions of race, culture, music, body type, and class. “If we really are to be art lovers,” King passionately declares, “we have to be open to every possibility, from every culture and every civilization.”

© 2015 Suzanne Carbonneau and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Cover photo by Morah Geist