No matter where her career has taken her, Ashley Mayeux has never strayed too far from her first love, ballet. Even while dancing for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mayeux would try to fit in ballet class as often as possible. After two seasons with the modern company, she decided to audition for Alonzo King LINES Ballet, despite not feeling entirely prepared. "Somehow it came back to me and was pretty natural," says Mayeux. Natural enough that she landed the job and, in 2018, moved across the country to restart her contemporary ballet career.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
Vail Dance Fest Enters Its Second Week
With half a month devoted to creating new art in the midst of stunning nature, Vail Dance Festival seems a dancer's paradise. Last week marked American Ballet Theatre's festival debut. The second week of performances, starting July 30, brings even more amazing ballet, with dancers and choreographers presenting a slew of new collaborations and premieres. Get the scoop on each program below.
Alonzo King LINES Ballet Takes the Vail Stage
July 30-31, Alonzo King LINES Ballet presents two different programs. The first performance, is a free, family-friendly event held in the Avon Performance Pavilion. The second, held at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, presents two works by King: Sand, a piece from 2016 set to jazz music, and Biophony, an exploration of the Earth's diverse ecosystems.
Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
American Ballet Theatre Makes Its Vail Debut
The Vail Dance Festival is best known for bringing together diverse performers to create outside-of-the-box collaborations. This summer, the festival's 30th anniversary, American Ballet Theatre gets added to that mix. July 28–29, 15 company members will dance the festival premieres of Alexei Ratmansky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher and Serenade after Plato's Symposium, as well as Jerome Robbins' Other Dances with New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck. ABT will also collaborate with tap choreographer Michelle Dorrance. She's creating a trio of new works for ABT this year, coproduced by Vail, the second of which she'll present at the festival. "It always broadens a dancer's perspective to cross-pollinate with their peers," says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. "It gives them an opportunity for independent thinking and self-evaluation." For Vail artistic director Damian Woetzel, incorporating the company into the festival reminds him of the magical sense of camaraderie that he felt as an NYCB principal when running into ABT dancers after their respective Lincoln Center performances. "Vail builds on that," says Woetzel. "We bring dancers together to create our own special community." —Chava Lansky
Photography by Christian Peacock
Summer is always a lively time at San Francisco Ballet, as the dancers return from vacation and launch into rehearsals for the upcoming season. But last July through September felt absolutely electric with creativity as the company created 12 world premieres for Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a cutting-edge program that will run April 20–May 6 at the War Memorial Opera House.
Artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited a wish list of international choreographers to participate: David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon. Each got about 12 dancers, three weeks' studio time and, aside from a few general guidelines, total artistic freedom.
Madeline DeVries, of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, starts her days with a bike ride or strength work.
Warm-up on wheels: Madeline DeVries' commute doubles as a workout. Two or three days a week, the Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancer bikes about seven miles through San Francisco to the studio. "The hardest part is going through Golden Gate Park. There's one uphill section that's always killer," she says. She arrives ready to dance and likes how biking warms up her knees.
It may be the middle of summer, but San Francisco Ballet is already rehearsing for its spring season. There's a lot to prepare for—the company's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, which runs April 20–May 6, 2018, will feature 12 new ballets by 12 choreographers. And it's an impressive group of dancemakers: David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon. That's a lot of choreography to pack in!
Stanton Welch in rehearsal with San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Luckily, we don't have to wait until spring to get a sneak peek of some of these new works. SFB is kicking off Unbound: LIVE, a series of live-stream events that will take us inside rehearsals. The first one is Wednesday, July 26, at 5:30 pm Pacific Standard Time (8:30 EST). It will highlight rehearsals with Arthur Pita, Edwaard Liang and Stanton Welch. You can expect to see the dancers perform excerpts of their works in progress, as well as interviews with each choreographer.
Artur Pita in rehearsal. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Visit SFB's website or its Facebook page tomorrow night to watch. And if you miss it, no worries—it'll be accessible on the company's site and YouTube channel for 60 days. The other live-stream events have yet to be announced, but we'll be sure to keep you posted!
Alonzo King’s company digs into the mysteries of movement with boundary-breaking collaborations, including his latest work, a reimagining of Fokine’s Schéhérazade.
When LINES Ballet takes the stage, what you see is never simple. Choreographer and founder Alonzo King’s textured work synthesizes diverse influences, creating entangled, explosive movements that have a sinuous grace. The dancers pirouette, crawl and then collapse on each other; shapes are both sculptural and emotional. The dancers themselves, meanwhile, seem fierce and supple, precise yet powerful.
Tall, too—even the women. “I do have a bias for height,” King says, chuckling a bit. “There’s just...more.”
That pursuit of “more” goes beyond height. King displays a voracious cultural appetit—collaborating with everyone from martial artists to African tribes. Most recently, he studied historical texts for a new version of Scheherazade, Michel Fokine’s celebrated 1910 creation for the Ballets Russes. King’s piece premiered in December as part of the Monaco Dance Forum’s centennial celebration of Diaghilev’s ground-breaking company, and had its American premiere at Duke University in late January.
King’s reimagining of this Fokine masterpiece concludes a year-long, worldwide homage to Ballets Russes. It proved particularly fitting that this closing ceremony of sorts included King, whose work follows Diaghilev’s tradition of teaming up with artists of various genres and backgrounds. For Scheherazade, King hired Indian tabla musician Zakir Hussain to rework the original score using ancient Persian instruments. “Diaghilev revolutionized ballet with impressive collaborations,” says King. “I wanted to honor him by re-energizing those forms.”
King began creating dances even before he started his dance training. During his performing career with Donald McKayle, Santa Barbara Ballet and a number of European companies, he found himself creating work on colleagues, and then for other companies. He founded LINES in 1982 to have “my own kitchen,” as he puts it. When the company expanded seven years later, he created the San Francisco Dance Center in a cavernous building at the gritty edge of downtown San Francisco.
LINES has become known for King’s boundary-slicing, cross-pollinated work. In The People of the Forest, he layered sculptural pointework over music and dance from the BaAka tribe of the Central African Republic. And in the acclaimed Long River High Sky, King worked with Shaolin monks, weaving acrobatic tumbles around knife-edged grand battements.
Although that broad vision speaks to both King’s palate and his modern sensibility, his dancers also possess the rigorous discipline of a ballet education. Whether the work is on or off pointe, King makes sharp use of their precision and technique. The men and women of his company have graduated from the Joffrey Ballet School, The Ailey School, Pacific Northwest Ballet School, the Kirov Academy of Ballet in D.C. and the Paris Opéra Ballet School, among others.
To King, ballet is essentially a physical vocabulary. “When people think ‘ballet,’ they think of a style,” he says. “But it’s a science of movement. It can be trained with complete misunderstanding because there’s a lot of cloning that goes on. But if you’re well-trained, you can do anything.”
King is always on the lookout for new dancers, auditioning potential company members whenever LINES?is on tour. He is drawn to dancers who understand “all the intricacies and possibilities” in both the upper and lower body. “A lot of training focuses on the hips down, and I love that,” he explains. “But I also look for what’s happening from the waist up. Some schools just ignore the upper body.”
King expects his dancers to have a point of view—to be “highly thinking, highly feeling people,” who can partner with him to develop a work. “I’m drawn to people who understand the mechanics of movement, so that they can play with it. Then I?can tell them, ‘Take this structure and play with it.’ “
“They’re not automatons. They’re bringing their life experience into everything,” he says. “Dancers who come to you like an empty cup…” he trails off, shrugging. “Who wants to work that hard?”
The company members work hard enough. They perform about 90 times a year, and the rest of the time adhere to an intense training schedule: Company class each morning, then five hours of rehearsal. “It’s pretty nonstop,” says King: “There’s no lunch, really; we just take breaks. We used to work six days every week,” he adds, “but the dancers revolted. Now we only work one or two Saturdays per month.”
Rachel F. Elson is a writer and the managing editor of CBS MoneyWatch.com.
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The Ballets Russes famously emphasized collaboration between choreographers and composers, and Alonzo King’s work with world musicians follows in this tradition. It’s fitting, then, that Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet is scheduled to open the Monaco Dance Forum’s centennial celebration of the Ballets Russes with a reimagining of the historic company’s 1910 Schéhérazade. For his interpretation of the celebrated ballet, premiering in Monte Carlo December 9, King recruited renowned Indian composer Zakir Hussain, who will transcribe Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s original score for ancient and contemporary Persian instruments.
King says his new choreography for Schéhérazade is inspired by the story—in which the heroine prevents a vengeful king from killing her and others by telling mesmerizing tales—rather than Michel Fokine’s original steps. “The essence of Schéhérazade is transformation,” says King. “Her love and wisdom change a bitter man. That’s my starting point.” —Kina Poon
Since the creation of San Francisco–based Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet 23 years ago, its dancers have been a tall, leggy bunch. But these days, the nine company members are more than tall—they look like demigods capable of unearthly pretzeling and rapid-fire, full-body syncopations. For some choreographers, that would be enough. For King, such physicality is only the starting point.
“What I’m trying to do is transfer states of consciousness,” he says during a break from rehearsal, his eyes searching the air for the apt words. It isn’t enough to perform a beautiful penché. “I want the dancers to become the arabesque, and in order for them to do that I have to leave them alone to follow the ‘roadmap’ of the movement.” That means giving dancers expressive freedom to interpret the steps, phrases and timing from one performance to another, he says. With a roadmap, there is no need for the dancers to emote; the movement itself provokes emotion, because what one feels performing a pencil-point piqué is different than the sensations brought on by a more languorous turn.
“Unlike most dance companies that are more concerned with offering gymnastic feats onstage, King recognizes that the purpose of dance is transformative,” wrote Janet Lynn Roseman about LINES in Dance Was Her Religion, her book about the legacy of seminal figures Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham. As if to confirm this, the warm, 6’2” choreographer is quick to say that it is no accident that the company’s name refers to an unending trajectory through space, or that he has defined his troupe by a fundamental aspect of ballet—the dancer’s line. He is an artist who believes, as painter Mark Rothko put it, that “art must provide the implications to infinity,” not the aggrandizement of the artist’s ego.
Implications to infinity abound in King’s 2004 Before the Blues. In this ballet, he takes the ideas of suffering and redemptive freedom that frequently fill his dances and tells an oblique tale about slavery and emancipation. But Blues is also a timeless hymn depicting the struggle to exist and the anguish all human beings experience.
As elsewhere, in this ballet King creates a layer cake of symbols through a combination of spare, allusive dance encounters and a rich soundscape. The dance concludes with shimmering baroque music, golden light and Prince Credell dancing like a man redeemed through faith and love.
While the dancers themselves don’t necessarily experience directly the layers King strives for, they can sense them in rehearsal because of King’s metaphoric approach to everything he does, whether it is talking about the body as an ear or the dancers as suns. “I was drawn to Alonzo’s work because I’d never seen people move the way the dancers in this company move,” says Credell, a shy, former Ailey II dancer from the Bronx, NY. Since he started dancing with King three years ago, he says, “I feel so engulfed in the work that I don’t feel self-conscious and, in the studio, don’t even notice I’m around people.”
When Laurel Keen first saw the company as a Minnesota teenager, she was wowed. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen in dance, and I remember the rush after that first performance and being changed by it.” From then, she says, it started “a little dream in the back of my mind that one day I’d be able to do that. The physicality was really different.”
As is the method King uses to achieve it. Rather than spooling out the dance, he starts with a long phrase that encapsulates the entire work. Beginning this way, according to veteran LINES dancer Maurya Kerr, is the hard part. “When we start, he comes in and says, ‘Okay, let’s learn this.’ He gives us the phrase, and no one gets it! But what he actually wants to see is your interpretation of what he’s just done. Then he gives us a collection of phrases that everyone needs to know.”
King agrees that “just by learning the phrase, they’re getting a synopsis of the ballet. All the other movement ideas and expositions come from that.” The 15 to 20 dance fragments that slowly emerge are treated like puzzle pieces, which King fits together in ways that the dancers say is always a surprise. But it is not enough to learn one’s own part. The group has to learn each other’s phrases, both to be able to cover for one another and to be completely immersed in the work.
Juxtaposed with such thorough responsibility is a certain mystery. The company is often kept in the dark about the title of the work, the music or the name attached to a role until the last moment, says Kerr. She, for instance, had no idea she was the figure of the Sage in King’s 2004 Rite of Spring until she saw the printed program. Had she known, she says, she “might have tried to do something different with the movement” and interfered with the qualities already there.
In the end, says Keen, what King gives them through this process is freedom, “the freedom to go onstage and be totally spontaneous. He really pushes us in a way I don’t think I would get if I were anywhere else.”
Ann Murphy has been writing about dance for over 20 years for daily, weekly and monthly local and national publications.