THE QUEST TO CAPTURE the illusion of flight is a defining tenet for any ballerina, yet Katy Warner, founding member of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, has experienced the real thing. In a 1987 performance of Joanna Haigood’s solo Dance for Yal, she sits on a trapeze 25 feet above the stage floor. In one hand she holds a grab robe that keeps her anchored near the top of the stage left wing. It’s a precarious suspension but she looks indomitable, lip-syncing to Edith Piaf, lounging in the air as if seated poolside, blithely tossing her hair. She lets go of the grab rope—the audience collectively gasps—and, untethered, begins her swinging flight. Arching back and straightening her legs, her body is horizontal as she passes over center, long red dress and blond hair streaming out behind her. It’s an image of exuberance that immediately conjures childhood nostalgia—tinged with the stomach-dropping anticipation of free fall. “I was absolutely terrified,” Warner remembers. “I’ve always been afraid of heights.”
Warner has many striking performances to her name, most of which, luckily, required her to stay on the ground. She was a fixture in San Francisco’s burgeoning contemporary ballet scene, dancing for multiple seasons at San Francisco Ballet, Dance Spectrum and Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theater in addition to her fourteen years with LINES. Her dance and teaching careers have spanned the development of LINES as a company and educational institution. In fact, she met Alonzo King before LINES even existed as an idea, standing on a Mission Street bus in the mid 1970’s. His posture and unconscious first position caught her eye; the conversation she initiated with him that day was the beginning of a cherished friendship and a solution to the perennial search for someone tall enough to partner her on pointe.
Outspoken, adventurous, curious and openhearted, today Warner teaches ballet technique and King’s repertory at the LINES Dance Center, currently celebrating its 25th year. One of the largest dance facilities on the West Coast, the Center now offers 80 classes a week to hundreds of students ranging from first-time dancers to seasoned professionals. King’s renown as an educator sparked initial plans for the school. Though Warner remembers being enthralled by his early choreographic experiments, it was his skill and intuition as a teacher that first earned him a devoted following in the local dance scene. He taught fourteen packed classes a week at Academy of Ballet and Dance Mission, students of all levels flocking to experience a revelatory methodology that still drives the LINES education programs today.
At the time, King had only just begun his digression away from traditional ballet pedagogy. Choosing to teach the technique in service of self-exploration, he honored the body as part of a triumvirate in constant conversation with mind and heart. The work was demanding: intellectually deep and emotionally intense. Warner felt empowered in a class taught through ideas and metaphor that she and her fellow dancers were all internalizing differently. “The emphasis was always on how do you feel this, what do you think, what do you see?” she recalls. Both she and LINES co-founder Pam Hagen were also struck by King’s uncanny ability to sense psychological blockages in his students. He was unafraid to follow physical manifestations of doubt and insecurity to their root, revealing patterns of negative self-talk in the process. What King asked for often destabilized his dancers; frequent use of improvisation made it impossible for them to claim authoritative space within the familiar structures of ballet. His training remains, at its core, an exercise in stripping away ego and artifice in a relentless drive for honesty.
For the dancers who found resonance in King’s methodology, this was the beginning of a fertile creative outpouring. Energized by those hungry to learn more, King would ask a few of his morning class participants to stay in the studio for the afternoon. There they workshopped material, conducting movement experiments in which process mattered far more than product. Hagen and Warner both look back fondly on this time as the luxury of creative freedom that perhaps only exists at the beginning of a choreographer’s professional career.
In search of independent studio space with room for a school and company to grow, LINES moved to 50 Oak Street in 1989. Hagen recalls that facets of the San Francisco dance community felt highly balkanized at the time, with devotees to particular traditions rarely venturing outside their proprietary camps. The rift between modern and ballet, she says, felt particularly strict and almost religious in fervor, ballet’s elite status in the public eye widening the gap between dancers who had often been told they had little to learn from each other.
Of course many professionals knew better, and dancers from ODC and San Francisco Ballet were regulars in King’s classes. LINES choreography already occupied a nebulous space between genres; the co-founders (including current Creative Director Robert Rosenwasser) envisioned their freshly painted and light- filled studios as a place where the dance hierarchy would continue to be subverted. They wanted space where ballet did not demand reverence as the crowning achievement of Western meta-culture, and where the essence of the art form—human expression—was welcomed in all its technical manifestations. The physical layout of the building was conducive to the kind of openness they envisioned. Studios (eventually 5 all together) on the same floor made the lobby into a literal crossroads where flamenco, folklorico, jazz, bellydance, Horton and Cunningham students had the opportunity to mingle in close professional quarters for the first time in city history.
When the building abruptly sold in 2001, Hagen, Rosenwasser and King were forced into the hostile real estate market that accompanied San Francisco’s first tech boom. Relocation was a harrowing prospect for any arts organization, and the co-founders were repeatedly advised to give up plans for a school and focus their efforts on finding one suitable studio for the company. Yet feats of non-profit networking prevailed, and a dedicated team of supporters and advisors helped navigate lease negotiations and city politics. The Odd Fellows building on 7th St became LINES’ new creative hub, and the Dance Center (then called the San Francisco Dance Center) opened its doors in January 2002.
Although Hagen laments the loss of communal gathering space so integral to the original vision of the school, the expanded infrastructure in the new building allowed for the cultivation and refinement of three separate branches of educational programming, thus beginning a previously unimaginable chapter in King’s career as a teacher. Warner has served on faculty for the year-round pre-professional Training Program, annual summer intensive and the BFA Program at Dominican University, all of which have expanded to include the talents of the wider dance community in diverse curricula. The education programs have also become a nurturing ground for current and former LINES company members who have made career transitions as choreographers. Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol, Gregory Dawson’s Dawson Dance SF and Christian Burns’ Burnswork were all forged, in some degree, out of early commissions for student work. The choreographers have the benefit of getting to know their young dancers during periods of intense artistic and personal growth, forging relationships that often blossom into professional employment after graduation.
In addition to revamping educational opportunities for pre-professional dancers, the 7th Street building has allowed for expanded outreach in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market neighborhoods, which Warner has been part of since the program’s inception. Ecstatic to return to school in her early 40’s, she completed a degree in Child and Adolescent Development at SF State University. She now serves as a mentor for the Training Program students who teach introductory dance classes at the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Club, De Marillac Academy, and, on the other side of the city, Presidio Middle School. Regardless of their age, Warner seeks to instill in her students an appreciation of how it feels to “be at home inside their own bodies,” and cherishes the opportunity to help them relate to the world from a place of self-knowledge and self-love.
One of Warner’s fondest professional memories is working on King’s Ictus in the early 1980’s, a piece she sees as the “Rosetta stone” of LINES vocabulary. She recalls that the original phrase work felt methodical and concentrated, almost prophetic. “It was like making mulch, preparing the soil for what was coming next,” she muses, pointing out that King’s prolific pace as a choreographer (and the often frenetic speed of his movement) would not be possible without that early experimental manipulation of balance, gravity, shape and line. In film recordings of Ictus, Warner moves with cool precision, carving spatial hieroglyphs with a focus that feels internal and engrossed, yet also omnipotent, grand. King envisioned her lead role in the piece as a “map-maker,” one for whom movement was motivated by the desire to reveal, illustrate and make something known. Warner has taught Ictus to young dancers for years, passing on the artistic blueprints she inherited in the earliest company rehearsals. As a LINES cartographer she continues King’s legacy of empowerment through art, opening channels and vistas for students to more clearly see themselves.
The LINES Dance Center shares this commitment to dance training that honors artistry in many forms. Though the layout and location have changed, the studios remain a site of creative synergy and support. Warner’s adult students can attest to her leadership in this regard; many who define themselves as outsiders or latecomers to ballet—a technique often shrouded in a culture of judgment and exclusivity—are surprised to find a sense of belonging and purpose at the barre. It’s Warner’s warmth and generosity as a teacher that fortifies her students in this transformation; with them she celebrates the myriad ways to create a life in dance.