American Ballet Theatre (ABT) recently became the official dance company of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and on March 16 – 19, 2022, will thrill the Segerstrom Hall audiences with works created by three world famous choreographers. The program will include Jessica Lang’s ZigZag (2021) performed to songs sung by Tony Bennett with a special duet with Lady Gaga, ABT’s Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s Bernstein in a Bubble (2021) choreographed to Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, and the world premiere of a yet untitled new work by California’s own Alonzo King with a commissioned score by jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. Tickets are on sale now.
2022 marks the 40th Anniversary of the San Francisco based Alonzo King LINES Ballet founded in 1982. Last week I had the great opportunity to speak with Mr. King about his company’s milestone year and his new work for ABT, and I discovered that he is not only a talented choreographer, but an extremely warm, generous, gracious person, and someone who cares very much about what is transpiring in the world around him.
I first asked King how it felt to be celebrating the 40th season of LINES Ballet.
“It feels great,” he said. “It feels like perseverance. It feels like I know what that means now. It’s commitment and I really know what that means now as well.”
This is the first work that King has created for ABT although he said that he used to coach prima ballerina Natalia Makarova for roles that she performed with The Royal Ballet and ABT, including Swan Lake. Makarova would travel from wherever she was to San Francisco to work with him. “It was a blast,” King said.
When I spoke with King he was in New York working with ABT dancers, but he said that he would be at the premiere of his work at Segerstrom Hall. When I asked if he had settled on a title for this new work he responded that he wished that he could tell me yes but that he had not.
“You know how some families do it,” He said. “they do it after the great uncle or the grandfather or the grandmother. For me, I really have to see the baby born before I can give it a name.”
As someone who has made dances, I totally related to this. One has to see the direction and the personality of the dance before a title presents itself. To told King that I sometimes named a dance while driving down the 405 Freeway and he laughed.
“It just came to you, right!” We agreed that this was something that those who market dance companies have a problem accepting. Understandably, they want all the pertinent information in time to send out their press releases.
The cast for King’s new work includes 18 dancers with Principal Dancers Isabella Boylston, Skylar Brandt, Thomas Forster, Calvin Royal III, Christine Shevchenko, Cory Sterns, Devon Teuscher, and Carlos Gonzalez starring in different sections of the ballet.
Much has been written about King’s relationship to music and his collaborations with composer and musician Jason Moran. When asked if the music inspired this new work or if his inspiration came from an outside force, King said that when ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie first asked him to create a piece on the company, he immediately said that he wanted to work with Moran.
“I love his music. He’s a brilliant composer and we’ve worked a lot together,” King said. “We pretty much work hand in glove. We talk ideas and then I send something back to him saying we need to cut 2 minutes here, let’s add 30 seconds there, or here we need silence. We work really closely and comfortably together.”
He went on to explain that most people think that one can hear music and right away know what movement to choreograph to it. “No,” King said. “It takes time to really hear music. I don’t like to rush it and say ‘Oh! I’ve heard it!’ It takes time and discipline because you have to hear the music without thinking about what you’re going to do to it. There’s this separation that has to occur as just a listener and not a choreographer.”
Referring to the genesis of the work King said that it originated from a discussion he had with Moran. “I said to him that the world really needs peace makers,” King said. “This was a deep part of it – of gentleness, of how to resolve differences or to exist and respect those differences. How to be open to different perspectives.”
King added that everyone comes with a different perspective on life and ideas, and we must learn how to respect them rather than respond with anger. “We are able to do astounding, ASTOUNDING things and yet we still don’t know how to get along,” he said. “And we live in a world that has a very strict hierarchy where someone could be thought of as a loser or someone could be thought of as a nobody. That is impossible! How could anyone be a nobody? There are people with trauma, there’s people with failures, but that is just part of living life on planet Earth. I think that how we look at each other and how we look at ourselves is a huge deal.”
King used the example that if a teacher underestimates a student, they damage that young person. He referred to how often he had questioned if a dance student was going to make it and then they would “blow my mind and bloom into majesty.”
“We have to start by realizing that human beings – no matter who they are or how they behave – are incredible.” He said.
King was born in Georgia but after his parents divorced, he and his mother moved to Santa Barbara. Several members of King’s family were active in the civil rights movement including his father, Slater King, who served as the president of the Albany movement. King explained that he lived with people who believed what came out of their mouths. Being around these people was both impressive for him and intimidating. “My parents were willing to die for what they believed in. Their commitment to truth was my tuning fork. What you speak you must live, or else do not speak it. That became my template for how to both behave and create in the world.” – LINES Ballet website.
Also on his website, it states that “King calls his works “thought structures” created by the manipulation of energies that exist in matter through laws, which govern the shapes and movement directions of everything that exists.” I asked him to elaborate.
“Because every seed, every creation begins with thought.” He said with conviction. “When people say, ‘Oh, you know, I have technique, technique.’ Technique is secondary, the idea is first and then you build the technique to show the idea. Ideas are primary. Ideas are the genesis.” He used the example of God uttering Let there be light! during the creation. “Ideas are the beginning!” he added. “And interestingly, the way that you think, molds your life.”
He went on to say that when you examine the life of someone who is always thinking negative thoughts, that the person has created a life that is unhealthy. “Thought shapes behavior, and what is behavior? Behavior is movement! That idea, that thought is movement, and then the Big Bang Theory being thought – vibration and sound are extricable linked. Which came first? They’re together. So that is what I’m talking about. These are thought structures.”
This new work by King features sets and costumes by LINES’ Executive Director, Robert Rosenwasser and the Lighting Designer is Jim French. When asked to describe the set and lights, King chuckled and said, “Let’s keep that a secret.”
When asked what he would like our readers who are familiar with his work to know about this new piece, King talked instead about the ABT dancers. “It has been a joy to work with these incredible artists at ABT who are just hopeful and capable of anything,” he said. “I think that it is important for people to know that everything is a collaboration. These are human beings and you don’t want them to play an empty cup, please fill me up. You want their experiences and their understanding.”
I asked if he worked with improvisation with the dancers during the creative process or if all the movement was produced by him. “The majority has been from me, but there is one section where I am forcing it to come from them (small laughter) and it’s beginning to look really brilliant.”
We spoke about the differences between the training for modern and classical ballet dancers. King reminded me that the thought process was part of a modern dancer’s training from the very beginning, and although it is changing, not so much with young students of ballet.
“In Ballet the training is about shape, form and accuracy.” He said. “And not realizing that those forms are related to nature. Circles and straight lines, and all the nature that is inherent in them and what kind of poetry that can evoke. It usually comes later, but it should start at the beginning because children are brilliant.” King was quick to add that the ABT dancers have been exposed to and done everything from Don Quixote to Twyla Tharp, so they were ready for whatever he presented to them.
King’s new ballet premieres at Segerstrom Hall along with Jessica Lang’s ZizZag and Alexei Ratmansky’s Bernstein in a Bubble on March 16, 2022 at 7:30 pm.
Single tickets for ABT Forward start at $39 and are now available online at SCFTA.org, at the Box office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, or by calling (714) 556-2787. For inquiries about group ticket discounts for 10 or more, call the Group Services offices at (714)755-0236.
To learn more about Alonzo King LINES Ballet, please visit their website.
To find out more about American Ballet Theatre, please visit their website.
To see what else is appearing at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, please visit their website.
Audience Advisory: Our updated COVID-19 policy requires ticket holders to provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 to attend all indoor performances and events at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. “Fully vaccinated” means your performance is at least 14 days after your final vaccine dose. To enter the theatre, please bring a photo ID (for guests over 18 years old) and proof of vaccination, either your physical vaccination card, a picture of your vaccination card, or a digital vaccination record. Most California residents may request a digital vaccination record at myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov.
Any ticket holders (including those under age 12) without proof of being fully vaccinated can present a negative COVID-19 test (PCR taken within 48 hours or antigen taken within 6 hours) of the performance. Along with their ticket, attendees will need to bring either documentation of a negative COVID-19 test result, emailed result, or picture of results showing a negative diagnosis as well as the date and their name. At-home tests will not be accepted.
Masks (over the mouth and nose) are required at all times for all ticket holders (ages 2 and up) regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces. Disposable 3-ply surgical masks, N95, KN95, or KF94 masks are recommended.
Performance ticket holders who do not comply with these policies will not be admitted.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Alonzo King – Photo © Franck Thibault