In the age of big fat lies – yes, I’m talkin’ about politics – here’s a truth you can take to the bank. If the first 70 years of the twentieth century gave us a long stretch of revolutionary art (you can put Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Graham, Balanchine, Picasso, Warhol, Miles, Monk and Coltrane in that parade), the repressive political-economic climate of the half-century since the asassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. has given us an epoch of ordinary art. There’s a lot of derivative work out there, and some of it’s excellent, for what it is. But paradigm shifters have been few and far between for ages now. Among the very few of those rare souls working in the ephemeral art of dance today is choreographer Alonzo King. His San Francisco-based LINES Ballet returns, after a six-year absence, to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater this coming Friday, March 11.
King, who trained at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, has something in common with the great neoclassical master – both define dance as music made visible. But – quite unlike the perspective we get from the famous Soviet emigré who was smitten by American jazz and created a distinctly American approach to ballet – King’s western classical dance was forged in the crucible of his identity as a black man from the Civil Rights generation and the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda.
King’s style is much more elemental and closer to earth than Balanchine’s, and he rarely puts women on pointe these days. King works the athletic lushness, the arabesques, the pulled-upness of ballet from a point of personal cosmic geometry that’s grounded in science, history, and a sense of universal spirituality.
“Classical dance isn’t some idea somebody in Europe thought up,” he told me some years ago. “It’s based on the discoveries of Ptolemy and Copernicus. It’s about gravity and space, coupled with humanity. And every abstraction stands for something else – as humans we’re a triumvarate of mind, body and spirit. Ballet is a symbolic language, and many of its referents are African, Moorish. Look at African sculpture; it’s abstract and geometric. The geometry that’s inherent in ballet was a gift to Europe from the Moors – they occupied the continent for 800 years. You see Moorish influence in cathedrals, and also in ballet. Arabesques aren’t Italian, and the pavane preceded the waltz.”
Two recent works are on the bill next Friday night. The first opens a door through which we can ponder the multilayered historical relationship between King and Balanchine. “Concerto for Two Violins” (2013; 16 minutes) was choreographed to the Bach double violin concerto in D minor that Balanchine used for one of his signature ballets, “Concerto Barroco” (1941), still in New York City Ballet’s active repertory and staged, by the répétiteurs of the Balanchine Trust, on countless Balanchine-based companies around the world. King’s Bach ballet, which I’ve only seen in YouTube excerpts, differs markedly from Balanchine’s in structure and form, but the musicality in the choreograhy is strikingly parallel – partly an artifact of the music itself, but also due to the perspicacious musicianship the two dancemakers share.
“When you were at SAB, did you do that piece?” I asked King on the phone earlier this week.
“No, I didn’t,” he says. “To tell you the truth I love the music and I thought, ‘this isn’t the sole property of Balanchine – this should be done by every damn body who’s a choreographer.' It’s brilliant – the combination of math and love and genius. It’s perfect. How could you not want to choreograph to it?’”
“Concerto” reveals King’s formalist side; the second piece, “Biophony” (2015; 43 minutes) returns ballet to nature. The “Biophony” score is the work of the remarkable Bernie Krause, who’s spent decades recording natural soundscapes in wild places and who’s written a wonderfully titled book about his work: The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (Back Bay Books, 2013). Krause coined the term “biophony,” which refers to the collective signature produced at one time by all sound-producing organisms in a given habitat.
Obviously, the scores for these two works are at different ends of the musical spectrum. I tried turning off the sound and watching the video clips from both dances. The dancers in a soundless “Concerto” just might have been dancing to the Krause score, but the reverse didn’t seem true.
“There’s a tighter form in the concerto, in the way it’s choreographed,” King says. In ‘Biophony’ the structure isn’t as easy to pick up, though it’s there. It’s softer; its naturalness is more apparent. There’s also a length and breadth in ‘Biophony’ that breathes in a nonlinear way. The Bach is very specific – it’s bright, and there’s a bit of a hard edge in it.”
The two works also are differentiated by the political-ecological message that’s implicit in “Biophony.” In a TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/bernie_krause_the_voice_of_the_natural_world?language=en, Krause is explicit about diminishing habitats. I wondered if King’s reason for picking this music was equally direct.
“Absolutely,” he says. “We’re destroying nature, and with it, ourselves. The message is incredibly important. It’s definitely in there, when you see the whole piece. We’re eating ourselves alive – it’s shocking. We have supposedly come so far technologically and yet in terms of emotional maturity we haven’t traveled very far at all. It can’t be said enough that we’re creating hell – we destroy living bodies and natural habitats in a minute, without even thinking about it.”
Everything in ballet ultimately comes from nature, King told me once, listing examples: spirals, the movement of rise and fall. “We live on a ball circling the earth on its axis – that’s fouette turns.”
So the Krause score seems like a piece of music King's been waiting to find for many years, perhaps unconsciously.
“That’s true,” he says. “When Bernie and I connected he was saying ‘I approached several choreographers, but they all thought it was so weird – it wasn’t music.’ And I thought ‘wow, what a missed opportunity – I’m glad, because it was meant for me!’ Bernie’s brilliant and dedicated, and this score is just beautiful music.”
Because it’s wild, the Krause score also plays right into King’s sense of “disobedient musicality” – choreographic kin to the dissonance you hear in Thelonious Monk and every great jazz pianist who’s come since. But did the unpredictable structure of nature’s orchestras also present more of a challenge for the dancers than music passed through the filters of civilization?
“The dancers went right to it,” King says. “One thing about dancers is that there’s so much we understand as natural – we don’t think of the way we move as being extraordinary until people look at us and say ‘oh, that’s not what most people do!’ But a dancer is a musician. Great dancers have to be masterful musicians – they’re always thinking of riding the wave, or slicing through it so there’s dissonance. And the piano and the orchestra are always in mind – dancers are always thinking ‘as a soloist and as part of a group how do I step into the flow, or step out and create a contra rhythm?’ Just staying on top of the rhythm isn’t musical at all – it’s following the metronome, it’s being a puppet. Real musicality is about manipulating sound into energy.”
How much of the choreography for “Biophony” was done by feel, and how much was research? “It’s all feel and intuition,” King says. “What I wanted to do – what I always want to do – is create a wonderful work. But I didn’t want to mimic the animals.”
You can’t always tell which animals you’re hearing in the first place, he points out. “When we started working with the score there were moments that were alarming. I’d hear someone say 'Oh my god, Bernie, where were you when that lion was roaring?’ and he’d say “that’s not a lion, that’s a pig from Borneo!'”
But “Biophany” isn’t about lions and pigs. “There’s something about hearing a sound, when you’re really listening,” King says – “you’re imbibing the feeling and sensation of the sound regardless of the animal that makes it.”
Sometimes, he implies, the animal is closer to the surface than others. “For example, there are some bees in 'Biophony,' and there’s an onomatopoeia that occurs – but the inspiration is the way nature operates, as opposed to how it looks. It's about trying to get the essence of something, and that’s true with any score. What’s the essence of any instrument? There’s a strike, an appeal, an urgency, a laziness; a sound will retard or whisper or be cacaphonous, and you either react to it or you go deeper to get to the essence of it.”
“Biophany,” at least from the video clips I’ve seen, also reveals the essence of King’s complex, multifaceted philosophy of ballet. He once gave me a great line that’s directly relevant here, so I’m going to repeat it: “When you see classical ballet, you have to ask youself why grown women with big strong minds are doing fairy variations. So you take the form and start again.”
“Biophany” does that to a T. Somehow, without the pointe shoes, the tiaras, and the tutus, some of the excerpts are – yes, they are – fairy variations. Enchanting feats of perfectly turned ballet technique and musicality, danced by female soloists. One’s a segment with Laura O’Malley in a short, feathery, tutu-looking skirt, dancing to a soundtrack that might be gulls and waves; another features the extraordinarily limber Courtney Henry, in a flowing dance dress, turning sound into energy to – whale songs? O’Malley and Henry seem the personification of nature spirits, the forerunners of medieval European fairies. The whole effect is sort of magical – both circular and linear, a real piece of Alonzo King cosmic geometry. There’s linear time, stretching ballet back to it’s deeply ancient roots at one end and way past Petipa into the future on the other – and, simultaneously, the whole notion of fairy variations comes full circle.