Alonzo King, upon the 35th anniversary of his Lines Ballet in San Francisco. (Franck Thibault)

Alonzo King celebrates 35 years of dance, beauty and truth in the key of San Francisco

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When choreographer Alonzo King came west from New York to San Francisco—along with Pam Hagen and Robert Rosenwasser, with whom he would start Lines Ballet—you could rent a 2,000 square foot loft at 10th and Howard for a mind-bendingly low $150 a month. That works out to .75 cents per square foot. Yes, you read that right.

But it was 1982 and the world was a very different place: The internet was nowhere to be seen, gas was 91 cents a gallon, Michael Jackson's Thriller was menacing the charts, and the world mourned the passing of jazz great Thelonious Monk. At the time, the lure of the West Coast was rippling through the culture. And while it wasn't all focused on San Francisco—if you've seen the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, you know that Oregon was having an early moment of its own in the "come live here" department—but it was to the City that artists eager to make work, live a creative life, and perhaps leave their mark in the process, gravitated.


Dancer Adji Cissoko, in Lines Ballet's premiere of Sutra, a collaboration with Zakir Hussain.(Chris Hardy)

When I walk into the building that houses Lines Ballet on 7th Street, I see young dancers, students, lining the halls. Many talking animatedly, others hypnotized by their phones with ear buds firmly in place. I enter the elevator run by an operator who stands next to a boom box turned up just enough to make itself noticed, which conspires with the slightly louche but friendly manner of the operator and the twinkling colored lights inside to make it seem like a small, private dance club for the five to seven second journey. I momentarily feel like an extra in the intro portion of Madonna's 2005 Hung Up on You video.

Upon arrival I'm escorted into the rehearsal studio where Alonzo King is running the company through phrases of Sutra, his new collaborative piece with tablas maestro Zakir Hussain, which is the crown jewel in this, the company's 35th anniversary season. The rehearsal is an opportunity to see the dancers at work, as opposed to performing, and boy it doesn't disappoint. Hot and muggy, it's intense and reminds me of a boxing gym. Apparently beauty and grace require sweat and toil to really manifest. King sits on the sideline in a conversational pose, sporting running shoes, sweatshirt, and a wool cap. Interactive but neither friendly or unfriendly, he watches intently, responding emphatically when he sees something he likes, cerebral and reasonable when trying to fix something that doesn't quite seem to be working. After a number of repetitions and scrutiny of some larger phrases, he says he wants to "practice the timings." He and the dancers then spend maybe 15 minutes on a small series of moves, where he shapes the space between and around the dancers in such small calibrations that I think to myself, "how on earth can they remember all this?"

On his lunch break, I accompany King back to his office for a short interview while he eats a salad. Gracious and talkative he covers a number of subjects in a short time: his childhood in Georgia; moving to Santa Barbara when he was 10; what he looks for in dancers (character!); his family's contributions to and work in the field of civil rights, which he found awe-inspiring and brave; his parents—most notably his father, who introduced him to yoga at a young age and then rented him an apartment in New York at 16 so he could pursue his dreams. Referring to Robert Rosenwasser who is the creative director for the company, he says, "Robert is brilliant, really humble, and not interested in praise. He brings so much—the color palette and visuals. He's so important that way as a collaborator." He stops for a beat and smiles, "I'm a hermit."

I mention how when I see him working with the dancers that he almost functions as a coach; he demurs and suggests that a mirror might be a better way of thinking about it. "I am the craftsman. I am there to remind them to remember who they are and what they are experiencing. That movement has its own inherent music. A mirror reacts and I am conscious of the energy around me, but the dancers are also their own mirror; they have to be in order to tap the witness inside of them."

As Rosenwasser points out, "There's been a long history of collaboration in the dance field, from the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo and Martha Graham's work with Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland to the Judson Street Dance Theater and Merce Cunningham's work with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

We've collaborated with the BaAka tribe from the Ituri Forest and the Shaolin Monks from the Henan Provence of China. And we've also had the privilege of working with great composers/musicians such Zakir Hussain, Jason Moran, and Edgar Meyer as well as singer Lisa Fischer. Not to mention, visual artists and architects Jim Campbell, Jim Doyle, Christopher Haas and Irene Pijoan. It's always an adventure."

Dancer Shuaib Elhassan, in Sutra.(Chris Hardy)

The opening night for Sutra saw a packed house, this despite the atmospheric river that drenched not only the city but also a good number of us who entered the theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on April 6. But as the lights dimmed and the curtain parted, all was forgotten. Hussain with his tabla, accompanied by Sabir Khan playing sarangi, sat at the rear of the stage behind a scrim set high behind a set evoking a wall of desert rock. As they began to play and sing, I am immediately put in mind of the spine-tingling feelings and otherworldly intensity produced when in the Muslim tradition, the Muezzin call adherents to prayer.

Which is fitting, since Sutra means a "string or thread, that which holds things together," and over the next 90 minutes or so we are treated to a performance that seems to transcend ballet, and instead becomes more like a fever dream of seamless traditions, music, costuming, and stunning dancing. A dream wired to make us feel the freedom of shedding our material world, both literally and metaphorically. At one point the dancers, wearing nylon flesh-colored tunics and body stockings, begin to pull, stretch and distort the fabric as if shedding skins, their bodies morphing of their own volition in that eternal cycle as they search for their next form, for their next truth. As if to say, it's 2018 and the world is a very different place.

// Lines Ballet's 35th Anniversary's premiere collaboration with Zakir Hussain runs April 6-15 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets—and for a complete list of other anniversary year events including a photography exhibit, tour, and a reprise of Biophony in September—go to linesballet.org.

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