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Looking Back at 40 Years of Alonzo King LINES Ballet

By Heather Desaulniers

To abide and persist with anything for forty years requires much. Belief, faith, love - and a little bit of luck. Or, maybe a lot of luck. And as Alonzo King, choreographer and Artistic Director of LINES Ballet, is keenly aware, perseverance and commitment. From May 13th-22nd, the iconic San Francisco company will share that spirit of tenacity and devotion as they celebrate their 40th season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Blue Shield Theater.

“One of the things that has struck me when looking back over these four decades is what perseverance and commitment can really do,” King said. “It feels good to be able to stick with a thing even when there are challenges, and I’m working with a group of people who know how to serve and commit.” From the teachers to the lighting designers, the board members to the accompanists, from those whom audiences see onstage to those out of sight.

“LINES is a living body of folks who believe in the power of art. They are a group of remarkable artists and an armada of unseen contributors,” says King. “Every person, embodying the highest level of achievement and excellence, is coming together to create.”

And create they have, since 1982. Back then, King had a vision for a new kind of ballet company, one that could push boundaries and upend physical vocabulary. One that could distill ballet’s essence and consider both its scientific and artistic nuances. “My early ballet training was largely about form, while my modern training was more ideational,” he remembers, “but there was still no discussion about spirit, about depth, about intuition.” He longed for a space where the body, mind and soul could be trained interdependently. A company that looked like the world did. A company where dancers would be freed from the stereotypes associated with gender. LINES Ballet would quickly become that place and today, the troupe still clings to those early ideas and desires, which ultimately, were about modeling truth.

Fast forward to spring of 2022 and King is not at all surprised that LINES is going strong and about to mark their ruby anniversary, “even if I ever had the inclination to give up, I wasn’t going to do it; it was in my head from the beginning that we would be around for quite some time.” And it all comes back to that powerful marriage of perseverance and commitment. “Commitment is like an anvil on which you can develop your character. It keeps you in excavation mode. Everyone at LINES was, and still is, hungry to see what uniqueness could be brought to dance,” he relays. The unique movement language King has developed for his company is certainly original. As were the collaborative projects he was drawn to, like 2001’s People of the Forest, a work with Nzamba Lela, a 16-member ensemble of musicians and dancers of the BaAka tribe of the Central African Republic. Or 2007’s Long River, High Sky, in which LINES collaborated with Shaolin Monks. Or 2011’s Triangle of the Squinches with architect Christopher Haas. The list could go on and on.

In May, that list will grow once more to include another powerhouse collaboration, which debuts on the 40th season program. For this world premiere, LINES is teaming up with composer/pianist Jason Moran and vocalist Lisa Fischer, both of whom King calls “musical titans.” He has worked with both artists before, this being his ninth collaboration with Moran and his third with Fischer, and the to-be-titled multidisciplinary piece promises to stir audiences. “The work is a love letter to the world about how we need to see each other as souls—as a universal family.” It’s an inspiring message indeed.

Inspiration is yet another constant that King is grateful for in these past forty years at LINES, “watching a human being apply themselves, transform and change is so inspiring – when you see that expansion taking place and depth come into a person, it’s a privilege to behold.” He has been humbled to witness that kind of transformation and it has further motivated him to protect LINES as a place where artists and dancers have the opportunity to grow, to experiment and to be challenged, without being judged.

King hopes that LINES’ generous atmosphere will endure for decades to come, and the company will continue to seek introspection, authenticity and artistic curiosity, “we want to be givers not takers.” And when asked what, if anything, might he have done differently? His quick and succinct response: “to do more and better.”

LINES 40th Season

Images: Alonzo King, LINES Ballet. Dancers: Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan. Photos by RJ Muna.

Heather Desaulniers
Heather Desaulniers
Heather is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, a contributor to DanceTabs, In Dance and several other dance-focused publications.
Heather is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, a contributor to DanceTabs, In Dance and several other dance-focused publications.
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