Alonzo King on gratitude, art as nutrition and living for now in an era of transformation

I should come clean now, so there is no speculation: I am a wild fan of Alonzo King Lines Ballet. I’ve been attending their dance performances for more than 10 years. I go for the inspiration of seeing human bodies in superhuman choreographed movements, but I stay for its founder, Alonzo King. As has been customary for years, Alonzo pulls up a chair after the dancers have left the stage and some audience members have retired (the smart ones stay), and he talks. He shares his process, he conveys his artistic philosophy, he reveals his craft. I’ve found that to be a rare and generous thing: a public figure dedicated to demystifying his expertise. His eponymous dance company, founded in 1982, is a synthesis of collaborations by composers, musicians and visual artists to expand the concept and execution of ballet.

This profile is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with people I consider conduits to our evolution in San Francisco — people who represent a perspective of change in our cultural, technological or political landscapes. As we close out a year of transformation, Alonzo King is representative of our collective movement into 2021, with many challenges to overcome.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: There’s a lot of complexity in just discussing this year. So I’m going to orient our conversation to the present day. Physically, spiritually, symbolically, where are you?

A: I am in Wickenburg, Ariz., with the company, and we are about to create a film. There is a filmmaker who Lines has engaged who is brilliant, and he’s come to Wickenburg with the crew of 14 people. This is an incredible opportunity. It was a grant from the (Andrew W.) Mellon Foundation, and their premise was, “We want to get artists back to doing what they were doing.”

(The company has) not been together to congregate in eight months. So this afforded us the opportunity to have three weeks of work in San Francisco, following all COVID regulations and protocols, and then to go into a quarantine and — we’re being tested every two days — now be together where we don’t have to wear masks and we get to work and create works. So it’s like a fish being back in the sea. It’s like the mermaid that was bound in the bathroom is finally released back into the ocean. Home. Home again, to be working. To be blunt, the place I’m in is gratitude. Gratitude to be working with the team again, because we want to give something to the world, something beautiful, something nutritious, encouraging, something … a slap in the face to remind you that you are divine. Whether you feel it or not.

Alonzo King, founder of Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

Q: You are one of the very few people I have seen explain your craft in such an accessible way. I’m very critical of artists who hold onto the mystery of what they do and don’t try to bring people in. You do it so adroitly, and you are very generous in your explanation of it.

A: As a young artist, I was so thirsty for the food, for the direction from other artists. And I found that most artists were covetive and secretive about explaining the process, or as you’ve said, keeping the mystery. I always recognized that brilliant people would become coy or they would not give food, they would not feed the hungry crowd. Which is what you’re supposed to do if people come to your house. What I found, whether it was magazine articles or talks, it was all about personality. I’m not interested in their personality, I wanted to know about their work. So I said that whenever anyone asks me, I’m going to really talk. The other reason I talk, bluntly, is because we have to realize that everyone who is serious about their life is some kind of artist. We’ve gotta get away from this “artist” and “ordinary person.” Even the term “ordinary person” is ridiculous.

One of the beautiful things (about) the artistic perspective is that you see behind appearances. I see glasses, I see beautiful brown skin, I see rich lustrous hair, but that’s the face. There’s something behind all that that is illuminating the figure, and that is where we are supposed to be looking. What are human beings? We are brilliant, radiant, luminescent souls. We’re souls, and we’re playing roles. And so if you can see behind the role, and if you can see behind the appearance, that means it’s time to intuit and listen to vibration, and so that the listening has to become clearer. But what is happening to us? We are moving into a higher age. No matter how it looks politically, no matter how it looks geophysically, no matter how it appears ecologically — yes, we are in danger and we are on the precipice, and hell abounds — but even with all of that storm and dirty brew, there is an elevation, there is a churning, there is a transformation. And the old dark age is fighting like hell to maintain its position that it is inevitably going to lose. And so all that is dark and heavy … it’s gotta go! Because where we are going, that doesn’t work. There is going to be a whole new way of being and seeing. We are in that transition. And the transition is a difficult one, but we are in that transition.

Q: Has this time affected how you feel about the role of art in our culture?

A: One of the beautiful things about this pandemic is … anything that reminds people that life is fragile is a boon. Because through that you are taught, you recognize, I can’t waste time. I don’t know if there’s a tomorrow. What has to be? I don’t want to postpone anything. The common mindset is that I will be happy when these requirements are met. It’s all nonsense. It’s about now. Regardless of circumstances, jump into joy now. Regardless of conditions, jump into your happiness now. Jump into the direction you want to go in now. Don’t play later; the later game doesn’t work.

Alonzo King, founder of Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

Q: San Francisco, like a lot of cities, has had its own racial and cultural reckoning this year. I’m curious if you have any thoughts about how the ecosystem of the arts, the relationship of money and the arts, works. There have been cultural institutions that have had their processes laid bare in front of people where it was closed off before. Do you see a need for a revision around that? What’s your feeling about it?

A: Let’s become very clear, no matter what skin color, what gender you’re wearing, we have been drenched in the inimical poison of white male patriarchy and white supremacy. It is an untold ignorance which has glommed over the whole world. So how fortunate (are) those who had on masks, who did not inhale those noxious fumes, even though they were walking in the middle of them, because they had parents and family and esteem who recognized that this is a lie. This is a dangerous falsehood. And that has to be changed. There’s a quote from Christ that you don’t hear many Christians say, but Christ says, “Know ye not, that ye are gods, and that the kingdom of God resides within you?” That’s yoga, it is within, and that is where the discovery begins.

Q: What is something you’ve learned about yourself this year?

A: I think there are things that you know, and with time you plumb them and know them better. So there’s two words which have inspired me, from the story of a woman named Sister Gianna Matta. She was asked, “If you were to live your life over, what would you do? What would you change?” And she said, “I don’t think I would change anything, except more and better.” So that stays with me. With time and age and experience, I see where I could do more, where I could be better, where this can be more. You become aware of the distractions and so, in good archery, you remove those distractions, and there you are and your objective and your focus. And so, distractions out of the way, you become single minded, and you lead yourself into success and victory.

George McCalman is an artist and creative director in San Francisco. His Observed column appears in The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Instagram and Twitter: @mccalmanco

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