King, out there on ballet's frontier, is part of a larger wave of dance change. Not long ago, a viewer could enter a gilt-laden opera house and find herself in a nostalgic time warp -- a 19th-century English palace or a Viennese drawing room, with stiff men in fancy dress circling to a waltz, their ethereal female partners gliding like ghosts. The scene might be beautiful in an unearthly sort of way. But then again, so are mausoleums.
In the late '60s and early '70s, ballet was slow to realize that cultural revolution was changing the American landscape. When modern dancers mischievously slipped over into the classical arena, most ballet dancers were contemptuous. But when audiences flocked to see exciting new modern dance companies like Pilobolus or Twyla Tharp, ballet snobs began to notice that something big was going on -- without them. Fear shot through the classical dance world. Was ballet dead? Plenty thought so.
Prescient ballet-makers like King, however, wanted to join the revolution and make it their own rather than watch their craft die. Now, after 30 years, ballet looks up-to-date even when the dancing itself flags. Flourishes from other forms -- African, flamenco, tap, and hip hop -- decorate basic jetés and turns as freely as tattoos and piercings adorn the bodies of 26-year-olds. The language of classical dance is consequently less remote, and its outdated social parameters -- white and safely two centuries old -- are in overhaul. Multiracial companies, body stockings, spiky hair, green pointe shoes, mudras from Indian dance, Caribbean music (or no music at all) -- all are increasingly what audiences expect and want.
No one in the Bay Area is as much at the forefront of this move toward crossover classicism -- ballet out of the box -- as King. This season, with new dancers like Prince Credell, Brett Conway, Tanya Wideman-Davis, Laurel Keen, and Drew Jacoby, the company is both more racially mixed and hungrier for King's demanding, fractured style. In rehearsal last week, the leggy group rushed across the studio then turned on a dime like a herd of elk. The performers writhed in duets of existential intensity. They shifted in antiphonal patterns, in and out of unison. And they traveled in isolated colonies that then merged back with the pack. The look of the movement was groping, haunted, internal yet communal, although sometimes also vague and improvisational.
At their least realized, King's phrases can dissolve into scattershot steps that appear random, like lovely doodling or musical improvisation that lacks a strong rhythmic or melodic through-line. Still, there's a cumulative intensity to his work that springs from his fierce pursuit of elemental expression, achieved through abstract line and concentrated interaction among the dancers. "A lot of people think of ballet as a style. It's not a style," he says. "Style is a byproduct. Ballet is a science of movement. The question is, "How do I streamline this to get to that? Can I be more honest?'"
Beginning Thursday, King and company celebrate Lines' 20th anniversary with a two-week run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The show features a suitably outside-the-box lineup of guests, including Wunderkind Rasta Thomas, who flew into town one night last week and learned his part the next day. Flamenco artist La Tania and saxophone jazz great Pharoah Sanders will also perform. The first half of the program is a still-nameless premiere, and the second half is a reprise of King's popular 1994 piece, Ocean.
If King's being African-American has anything to do with his approach to dance, he says it's in his viewing the world intuitively and emotionally -- what he calls "from the inside out" -- rather than rationally and analytically. But try to get King to address the growing place of African kick steps or sweeping, ritual arm movements in his work, try to pin him down about his use of the Indian Bharata Natyam style, and he will talk to you only about the ideal. "In classical ballet, the same ideas that are inherent in that form are in Bharata Natyam. They're in the classical dance of most cultures," he says. "What is it concerned with? It is concerned with what is permanent rather than with what is temporary or popular or trendy. It's about spirit. What else is permanent?"
King is best known for breaking down the staid musical parameters of classical dance. While other ballet-makers have only recently begun to experiment, King began doing so decades ago. "The very first thing I choreographed for public performance was a pas de deux to a song by Miriam Makeba," he tells me -- and that was when he was in high school. Since then, he's collaborated with African rain-forest pygmies, masters of the tabla, oud, and koto, a cappella singers, and electronic wizards.
Unlike the postmodern mixing of the early '80s that created pastiches of different forms, King's experiments carve out a new classicism that reflects our society's multicultural present. Whether Lines captures lasting truths or expresses the essences King is after is for audiences and historians to debate. What is beyond argument is that only a truly big box would be large enough to hold Alonzo King and Lines Ballet.