These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Jun 1, 2024

Movement as Metaphor
Choreographer Alonzo King on motion, sound, and fairy tales
by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

One of Alonzo King’s earliest memories is of his mother preparing to go out one evening. She was wearing a dress made of a fabric that whispered at every step, and as its chiffony rustle blended with the sweetness of her voice, he experienced her presence as both motion and sound. “They’re really the same,” he said in a video interview from his San Francisco home, “because you can’t make sound without some kind of movement.”
King is one of the most innovative choreographers in America, dedicated to dance as a form of spiritual inquiry that fuses sound and movement with love. In a workshop that has garnered tens of thousands of views online, he once defined ballet as “a system of law and order that has to do with kindness, benevolence and symmetry.”
This month, dancers from the Alonzo King LINES Ballet will join the San Francisco Symphony for a new staging of Ravel’s Mother Goose conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. In previous collaborations, King has reached far afield to work with Shaolin monks, Baka hunter-gatherers from the Congo Basin, or with the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain for a Sheherazade that reimagined Rimsky-Korsakov’s tunes on Persian instruments. But though only a few blocks separate King’s company from Davies Symphony Hall, this new work, too, speaks to King’s ongoing efforts to integrate East and West.
In classrooms, Ravel’s collection based on French fairy tales sometimes serves as a textbook case of Orientalism. Dainty pentatonic scales and shimmering sonorities color the movement about “Laideronnette, Empress of Pagodas”—the musical fetishization of an effeminate Other. But for King, East and West are complimentary qualities inherent in every human. “That’s the beauty,” he said. “It’s in us. It’s left brain, right brain. It’s logic and feeling.” The power of dance, for him, lies in its ability to bring out the inherent wisdom of the human body. Alignment is not just an aesthetic goal or muscular challenge. It models balance in a world that teeters between unhealthy extremes.
“We know that on the lowest level, logic can be humdrum, predictable, stuck,” King said. “On the lowest level, feeling can be indulgent, illegible—you know: muck.”
In King’s choreographies, every movement is metaphor. When rehearsing with dancers, he speaks of arms as antennae that receive and give information and of the heart as a sun that should radiate warmth. Extensions might speak of the human yearning for eternity; a spiral might be the head chasing the tail. Ballet, he once said, is a treatise on how to lead a complicated life.
King’s engagement with Indian philosophy goes back to his childhood in Georgia. His parents were Civil Rights activists, his father a leader of the Albany Movement and a committed disciple of Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent protest. King remembers visits from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, as well as from friends from Ethiopia, Ghana, and Senegal who brought with them their own music that blended with the recordings of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner, which his parents, who had met in the choir at Fisk University, loved to play. In church, he sang in the choir, feeling himself drawn to “all the beautiful chorales that had that Gregorian chant in them, which actually spoke of the East as its origin and how deep and profound that was.”
One room in the home was dedicated to yoga, which King’s father practiced. He would invite the children to observe, quietly, for five minutes at a time. With his brother and sister, King said, he would “go in and imitate lotus posture, and we’d look at each other and giggle and try to be quiet. And then after what we perceived to be five minutes, we would tiptoe out.” He said these early encounters planted the seed for his own lifelong engagement with meditation and spiritual study. “As contradictory as it may seem for someone who grew up a mover,” King said, “stillness is the doorway to peace. A body that’s not flinching, a body that you don’t scratch when you feel an itch, a mind that isn’t restless—that’s the door to the Divine.”
For his company, he hires dancers as much based on character as on their athleticism. A signature of his style is an uncanny quality of simultaneous fluidity and calm, with limbs that seem to unfold like a natural process, with inevitability and ease. Lines morph into waves as arms stretch and undulate.
“They really begin to see it as an instrument,” King said of his dancers’ relationship to their bodies. “They begin to work it as a violin, as a piano, as a harpsichord. It’s music. And what’s really playing that instrument is the mind and the heart. And as you’re playing, whether it’s choreography or as a composer, you’re trying to find the essence of the communication, the ideas that are behind the music or the choreography. And you want them to inhabit you so that they’re clear.”
In the case of Ravel’s Mother Goose, King said he tries to connect to the archetypes beneath the children’s tales, which include well-known stories like Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb. Although Ravel’s music was not initially designed for the stage, the music conveys a strong sense of movement, with sections including a waltz, a lullaby, a pavane, and a spinning-wheel dance. King’s choreography is not so much about telling the stories, he said, as it is about teasing out what he sees as the work’s underlying metaphysical truths. And, as always, the key lies in the symbolism of the body itself.
“Take the princess in Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “What is that if it’s not all of us who are walking around in some state of unconsciousness? And we’re awakened by the magic wand— which is the spine, which means willpower—into a larger consciousness.”
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer and founder of Beginner’s Ear.

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