LINES Ballet: Homegrown Company Takes Flight

By Wendy Rein

November 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

On October 1, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom presented the 2nd Annual Mayor’s Art Award to Alonzo King, the celebrated Artistic Director and Choreographer of LINES Ballet. “Alonzo King is a San Francisco treasure, embodying the best of San Francisco, the creative excellence and diverse culture of this city,” said Mayor Newsom. “He has given equally to the dance community internationally and the community-at-large here in San Francisco.”

While King was accepting this prestigious award, his company was in British Columbia, part of a short fall touring stint in the Northwestern US and Canada that included the White Bird Dance Festival in Portland, Oregon. The fall tour began just a few weeks after the summer tour, which included such renowned stops as the Venice Biennale in Italy, the Montpellier Festival de la Danse and Vaison Danses in France, and the Festival Internacional para las Artes in Guatemala. The company’s intermittent stops back home brought them to Jacob’s Pillow and San Francisco’s own Stern Grove Festival. These tours followed LINES’ glowingly-received spring season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which itself followed on the heels of a national spring tour to colleges and universities around the U.S.

The list of engagements for 2007-2009 reads like a geography lesson for ballet and contemporary dance enthusiasts—if you want to know where the major dance festivals and venues are these days, the LINES touring web page isn’t a bad place to start.

LINES Ballet has suddenly taken off at a full gallop, or maybe more accurately, a grand allegro. The company seems to be everywhere, often received by packed houses and largely favorable reviews at home and abroad. Die Neue (Austria) wrote, “Alonzo King—that American choreographer who creates in order to re-form the dance language of classical ballet… shows the audience a noble and elegant aspect of movement, with the aim of transporting them into the heavens of dance.” King has “broken the mold of what ballet can be,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And La Maison de la Danse in Lyon, France proclaimed King “the giant of San Francisco.”

LINES, it would seem, has officially “arrived.” But though the company has received plenty of praise in its 27-year history for its innovative interpretation of classical dance, and its sleek, virtuoso performers (five of whom have been awarded coveted Princess Grace Awards), such extensive attention and the international acclaim are relatively new phenomena. Indeed the company’s touring schedule prior to the company’s 25th anniversary tour in 2005 (LINES first international tour was to the 1990 Prague Modern Dance Festival) looked nothing like it does today.

What does look the same is King’s commitment to bringing dancers, musicians, and other collaborators with a high level of expertise in their respective fields together and creating beautiful movement to transcend cultural boundaries, to reveal some inner human truth. In an interview with Céline Laflute earlier this summer for, King discussed his approach: “I want to tell the truth, to be honest. Each day gives us the opportunity to learn and to create more. The way a dancer moves reveals his or her way of being in the world. Some are so generous! I want to attain this level of love and plenitude. It’s the discovery that’s important: one works to wind up discovering something that already exists. I’ve dedicated my life to this. When beauty expresses a little bit of truth, there’s the reward.”

Finding a diverse and often unexpected pool of talented collaborators has been integral to King’s work in expanding the boundaries of his vision, and possibly a key element of his growing acclaim in recent years. Legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, tabla master Zakir Hussain, Japan’s composer Somei Satoh, Polish composer Pavel Syzmanski and Nubian oud master Hamza El Din are just a few of the notable musicians that have created scores for LINES. In dance too, King has chosen to work with unexpected artists from across the globe. In 2001, the company debuted an evening-length work with Nzamba Lela, a 16-member group of dancers and musicians from the Baka Pygmies of the Central African rain forest. More recently, LINES performed Long River, High Sky, a collaboration with Shaolin monks (from China for the premiere in 2007 and then from the Shaolin Temple USA in Fremont for the 2008 run). This conversation between contemporary ballet and kung fu was not only a favorite with the press, but also packed theaters across the globe.

Looking beyond the practical aspects of such global collaborations (though attracting attention from press, funders, and presenters is no small feat), King describes these cross-cultural conversations as a search for transcendence. “We are made of light. […] How do we identify ourselves? If you think of yourself as belonging to a race, sex or age, that’s how you’ll appear. Dancers experience the macrocosm, the microcosm and strive for a balance between will and abandon. There are an infinite number of ways to approach movement. Artists have this unlimited capacity to become everything possible with regards to art: an animal, an old woman, a mathematical construct, humility, joy, eroticism…”

This desire to distill our shared human experience has run steadily through King’s choreography and collaborative choices. Race as well as social constructs and distinctions seem to fall away in his work. Though LINES dancers represent a spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, King attests he isn’t driven by a quest for diversity. “There really isn’t any ‘other.’ As fascinating as diversity is, it’s a trick. Each person is in fact a culture… There’s a sameness among all people which is very powerful, but there’s also a uniqueness.”

It’s perhaps this quest to convey the illumination of the human spirit—something shared across cultural and international borders—that has helped LINES win over audiences across the globe and keep them clamoring for more. Though rooted in recognizable and well-established classical technique, King uses ballet as a jumping off point rather than a confined vocabulary. As the company’s artistic mission states, “The term LINES alludes to all that is visible in the phenomenal world. There is nothing that is made or formed without line. […] A line of thought. A boundary or eternity. A melodic line. The equator. From vibration or dot to dot it is the visible organization of what we see.”

Though international touring opportunities for LINES have skyrocketed in recent years, Alonzo King himself is hardly a newcomer in the global dance community. Throughout his career, he has created works for more than 50 dance companies around the world, including Frankfurt Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Swedish Royal Ballet, and Hong Kong Ballet.

His contributions have not gone unnoticed. The San Francisco Mayor’s award was one in a line of prestigious honors King has received in the last few years. Other major awards include: the Jacob’s Pillow Creativity Award given earlier this year in recognition of his contribution to “moving ballet in a very 21st-century direction;” a US Artists Fellowship in 2006 honoring the 50 finest artists from all disciplines currently creating work in America (of which King was one of four Fellows for dance, and the only one outside of New York); and the Bessie Award for Choreographer/Creator in 2005.

So what’s next up for LINES? As soon as the company returns from Canada, they jump into their fall season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, a collaborative project with jazz legend Pharoah Sanders. The first half of 2009 takes the company to Hawaii, New York, Italy, and France, to name but a few places.

For French company member Caroline Rocher, the newfound international status has meant not just travel, but a journey home. “Ever since I’ve performed in this company the response from the audience has been amazing and so warm everywhere we’ve been. Dancing back home (in Montpellier, France), on the same stage, at the same theater after over 10 years, was really a great moment for me. Especially knowing that my family, friends and my dance teacher were in the audience.” Yet despite the international acclaim, LINES is still very much a San Francisco institution. Rocher went on to qualify, “I love to perform at Yerba Buena. I think it’s important for the company to perform at home.”

San Francisco audiences agree. The last three spring and fall home seasons have sold out and, though the upcoming fall season doesn’t have any high flying monks, it promises to be no less exciting.

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of In Dance.

Wendy Rein is Co-Artistic Director of San Francisco-based contemporary company RAWdance. Founded in 2004, the company is preparing for its first international tour to Singapore in January 2009.