Alonzo King

Famed choreographer Alonzo King talks about the risks and rewards of collaboration.

Photography by Marty Sohl / Courtesy of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet of San Francisco

In a sweaty San Francisco dance studio, Alonzo King watches a quartet of men entwine around one another, forming a spinning line that soloist Brett Conway, his limbs fluid and yet tensile as a spider’s thread, keeps trying to break through.

“This is interesting to me because it’s a fixed point — convergence, and then one emerges,” King says in his gentle voice. “It’s that same tightness and then” — he throws his long arms wide — “whoosh! So as an idea, tightness and then release.”

King is talking to a group of musicians who will soon go back to their studios to create a score for his new ballet (which premiered on October 17th in San Francisco). The legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who played with John Coltrane’s jazz ensemble in the 1960s, will improvise live over this musical base, though he won’t be coming to the studio to see the dancing until three days before opening night. It’s risky, but risk-taking and collaboration are the driving forces of King’s creative vision.

In twenty-six years of making dances for his Lines Contemporary Ballet, King has paired his dancers with tabla master Zakir Hussain, Hindustani singer Rita Sahai, a band of Central African pygmies called the Ba’Aka, and a US-based group of kung fu practicing Shaolin monks. For King, collaboration is the essence of creative expression. It also poses a management challenge that any business leader or manager can appreciate: How do you bring seemingly disparate teams together for a cohesive — and transcendent — result? King shared his thoughts on collaboration during a rehearsal break in his office on September 18, 2008.

I OFTEN SAY IF TWO MEDIOCRE PEOPLE come together, a scientist and a farmer, and they meet and discuss what they do, they’ll say, “We’re really in two different worlds.” But if it’s a visionary scientist and a visionary farmer, they’ll say, “My God, we’re doing the same thing.” I want to talk to the world’s top scientists. What does that have to do with ballet? A lot. Anyone who has dedicated themselves to something and given their best [is] at a high level of expertise. They’ve got a lot to offer, and I’m interested in conversations with them.

The most successful collaborations I’ve done, we start together from the beginning. Pharoah says, “Man, what we doing?” I say, “What you doing?” He says, “Man, I feel a French horn. And two harps.” I say, “Sounds good.” That’s the first conversation. We contract the French horn, and we start.

There are collaborations where you have to work hard. Good stuff comes out, but it’s work. And then there are collaborations like [the one I did with] Zakir Hussain where you don’t do anything. I’ll go to his house, we’ll talk ideas, and he’ll give me an hour’s worth of music.