Alonzo King LINES Ballet was founded in 1982, and the 40-year celebration of that goes all year. It includes a world premiere May 13–22 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (with Grammy Award-winning vocalist Lisa Fischer and a score by jazz musician Jason Moran, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” award), commissions with the American Ballet Theater, performances with the National Ballet of Canada, a documentary about the company, and a movie starring dancer Misty Copeland that Alonzo King choreographed.
Asked what he’s most excited about, King says he doesn’t really think that way.
“I’m going to be blunt — I don’t think about what’s exciting,” he said. “I like to work. I want to make ballets. I want to make art, and I want to do that until I have to leave the planet. Most artists don’t have this idea of retirement in their minds.”
In the dance that premieres at YBCA in May, King says he wants what he always wants — to create something beautiful that resonates and causes people to question.
He doesn’t necessarily want to directly portray his ideas, he says, but rather to get at the truth of them, comparing it to accurately painting the features of someone’s face exactly versus capturing their essence.
Doing this as his life’s work has been a pleasure and a joy as well as a struggle to communicate his ideas clearly and succinctly, King says. He believes audiences get something though the gestures and forms and music in his dances.
“Whether people recognize it or not, there is a soul language and a vibratory communication that is happening,” he said. “When Bach is speaking to us, for example, not only do we hear the consciousness of great work that is affecting your psyche, there’s a whole other level working that can’t be measured. Bach is clearly saying how to be a fine human being through the balance of science and heart that’s there.”
Michael Montgomery, who has been with LINES for 12 years, came to the company after wandering into a Barnes & Noble in New York and seeing a calendar with picture of company members. The photos of dancers like Maurya Kerr and Marina Hotchkiss embodied movement in a way he hadn’t seen before, Montgomery says.
That inspired him to go to the Alonzo King LINES Ballet BFA program at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, and in his junior year, King asked him to join the company. Montgomery says it’s an exact fit for him.
“I’m not the type of artist who lives in a box, and I wanted to be somewhere where I’d be valued for my own spirit,” he said. “When I saw the photo, it was a moment and everything in me felt a connection.”
Fischer, who has worked an array of artists including Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, and the Rolling Stones, feels that connection with the LINES dancers as well. She did The Propelled Heart with LINES in 2015, and she says the company members love and trust each other and extended that to her.
“To be able to share the divine space that’s been created with the audience is what it’s all about for me,” she wrote in an email.
Montgomery also uses the word “divine” when he talks about King collaborating with other artists. King doesn’t feel the kind of ownership over his company that some do, Montgomery says — rather he hires people he’s inspired by and listens to them.
Montgomery clearly remembers the experience of working with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Saunders.
“The saxophone is my favorite instrument, and I’ve always wanted to move the way the saxophone sounds,” he said. “I’ve gotten to work with him live, and he knows my name and that’s because of Alonzo. And Alonzo didn’t call on him for clout. He’s like Alonzo — they do it for art.”
Art can restore us, King says. He calls both Fischer and Moran truth seekers who are always examining themselves as well as what’s going on in the world to make work that’s healing.
“Every musician is trying to find the true illuminating sound pitched in their being that confronts loneliness and sorrow and misunderstanding,” he said. “If someone feels weak, they can listen to Beethoven for fearlessness. If someone feels cold hearted, they can listen to Chopin over and over. It affects your consciousness.”
King compares collaborating in his work to getting together with friends to cook a meal, or like the Amish, to build a barn. He says work is cleansing for him, and he appreciates thinking and creating in harmony with artists like Fischer and Moran.
“When you have titans like Lisa with this incredible voice — let me change that — it’s the mind,” he said. “It’s like when I listen to Leontyne Price, it’s the mind. There are many people with beautiful voices who don’t know what to do with them. The mind and heart are playing the instrument and that creates an opportunity for change.”
Working with Fischer altered even his ideas about life- changing artists, Montgomery says.
“Lisa Fischer is the truth,” he said. “She’s so real. There are no bells or whistles or sparkers or streamers. She looks in your eyes and sees straight into your soul. And then she sings, and her voice is so transcendent, and she reminds us of love and hope and truth and regret. The full spectrum of her life comes through in her voice.”
Looking back on doing this for 40 years, King says being committed to something, like he is to dance, changes you.
“It’s like ‘You got married, and you did not cheat,’” he said. “You are going to be transformed through that commitment, whether bitter or sweet. That’s the beauty of dedication. When you commit to something you are being hammered against an anvil. Whenever we’re meeting anyone, we’re looking to see ‘Who is that? Is this fake gold or real gold?’”
For Montgomery, there’s no question that King and his company are 24 carat gold.
LINES has thrived and stayed relevant because King cares so much and is a “true giver,” Montgomery says. Being in the company has made him a better dancer but he thinks being where his voice matters also makes him a better human being.
“Dance is a job, but Alonzo is not looking for someone who can just handle the job,” Montgomery said. “He sees souls and spirits, and he wants to invest energy into them, and, baby, that is the truth of art.”