Face to Face: All the Possibilities

A conversation with choreographer Alonzo King

Alonzo King recently celebrated his 30th anniversary as a force in the San Francisco dance community and beyond. Since founding Alonzo King LINES Ballet in 1982, his undulating and often philosophical contemporary ballets have been performed by major international companies including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Béjart Ballet Lausanne and Hong Kong Ballet.

This spring, audiences can see the results of one of his latest projects: a ballet created for and performed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and LINES—two companies located more than 2,000 miles apart and nearly as distant in aesthetic. Hubbard Street’s artistic director Glenn Edgerton initiated this rare partnership in 2010, and in late August 2012, both companies met for three weeks to set the final work for a February premiere in Berkeley, California. With some original music by San Francisco composer Ben Juodvalkis, the new work (untitled as of press time) pairs all 12 members of LINES with 16 (of 18) members of Hubbard Street, challenging ballet and modern performers to dance as one ensemble. Chicago audiences can see the work this month at the Harris Theater. Dance Teacher spoke with King during the late stages of the partnership.

Dance Teacher: What has been most challenging about the collaboration?

Alonzo King: Coordinating our schedules. Time for both companies is very scarce because we work all the time and tour a lot. Before the official collaboration, Glenn asked me to set my piece Following the Subtle Current Upstream, so I could get to know his company. I thought the idea was brilliant and also incredibly generous.

For the new work, I started with Hubbard Street and filmed it, then taught my company, and vice versa, until we were able to get together. We convened for three weeks in Irvine, CA, away from both of our homes, which made it more interesting. No one was comfortable, we were all staying at a hotel and working at the University of California, Irvine, studios. We singularly focused on building that work, and all the designers came in and stayed there. It was very intense.

Hubbard Street and LINES dancers at the University of California, Irvine, studios

DT: Has the work changed since your initial meeting?

AK: Often when you’re creating a work, there is an emergence of what the work is, outside of what you thought it was going to be. And you have to honor that. I like to see what all the possibilities are and play up to the very end.

Initially Glenn had the idea of showing the differences between our companies, but I don’t find that as intriguing as commonality. A good dancer is a good dancer. I’m interested in any dancer who has the ability to manipulate energies in any way, and if you’re a good artist, there’s nothing you cannot do. I wasn’t interested in this company or that one. I was interested in a group of dancers becoming one.

DT: What do you value most in a dancer?

AK: I take technique for granted. Any professional dancer has to have a formidable technique. But the most important qualities are the ones that no one can give you: character. How often do you see sincerity, honesty, fearlessness, compassion, humility—those should be the aim of a dancer’s training. So that at the end of her training, she becomes a bigger thinker, a deeper feeling human being. Because what are we seeing onstage? We’re watching who they are. You can see when someone’s afraid, just as you can see when someone’s hiding and trying to dazzle you with the wizardry of mechanical techniques.

DT: You often teach pre-professionals. What have you learned as a teacher?

AK: When you’re looking at students, they can’t hide because you see everything. But in that same vein, neither can you as the teacher. Students are always scrutinizing and seeing your character. So we constantly have to work on who we are. Regardless of what you may say, a student knows if you believe in her or not. I think you should never underestimate students, regardless of how they’re performing. Because what’s latent in them, given time, in their own interest, will bloom. DT

From top: photo by RJ Muna, courtesy of LINES Ballet; courtesy of Jessie Ryan and Jennifer Lott, University of California, Irvine

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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