Whenever a new choreographer comes to Hubbard Street, there is a period of adjustment to the new style. The HSDC dancers are pros at quickly adapting to meet whatever artistic challenges are thrown at them, but working with Alonzo King has been different. King, an award-winning, visionary choreographer and founder of San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, has his own way of doing things. “He’s very direct,” says HSDC dancer Benjamin Wardell. “He’s not in any way unkind, but the protocol of petting the ego is just gone.” Wardell isn’t new to King’s process. He danced with LINES for about a year and a half before coming to HSDC. “If you’re working with him, he assumes you are a really great dancer and he assumes that you assume you are a really great dancer, so he can just say to you ‘this is what you need to work on right now’.”
Watching rehearsals for King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (which begins the multi-year collaboration with HSDC and LINES), King’s directness is on full display. Yes or no? That’s important. Do you understand? Almost. Almost. Better. Quality, wonderful; phrasing, not so interesting. He constantly pushes each dancer to be better and better, to evolve beyond what dancer they think they are, to make choices with the movement. It is obvious that Wardell is completely comfortable with this style. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also performed this work before. “As a structural piece, it’s one of my favorites of his pieces,” Wardell says. “A lot of his work is very stream-of-consciousness and this work has a very clear flow, beginning and arc. It’s a lovely piece.” In addition to King’s work, the Summer Series features the abstract 27’52” by Jirí Kylián and the grand, yet intimate Untouched, created last year for the company by Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. It is a well-balanced program that will undoubtedly highlight the group’s hi-caliber technique, while also challenging their collective intellect. Wardell (as usual) will be a stand-out in the show, which will be his last with the company as he leaves to pursue other projects and freelance work. Lucky for us, he’s staying in Chicago.
RB sat down with Wardell to talk about his time at LINES and his insights into King’s process.
RB: Tell me about your time with LINES and what it was like working with Alonzo.
BW: It’s extremely challenging…very, very demanding in a positive way. He has this approach to the body that he sort of built off of ballet technique. I’ve always called it hyper-classical. (It’s) taking the classical ideals, the classical forms of energy and exaggerating them. It’s very much ballet-like. I also feel Alonzo’s work is to ballet, what jazz music is to classical music. Basically, you still have to have a high, high level of classical technique, but you take the ideas and you play with them, you exaggerate them, you interpret them through yourself. Everything is semi-improvised in terms of timing and musicality. You’re constantly being required to make new choices and do things differently. In the end, you have to expand your understanding of your options. You have to be so trusting in your technique that you’re willing to let go of some of the things that you do to lock your body into place for the sake of psychological security and just go and all of a sudden, you’re able to do these things you never thought you could do.
I like Alonzo’s choreography a lot. I think it’s very good, but I think his real genius is in how he can work with people and pull out qualities. He completely revolutionized my dancing. Everyone who joins that company, everyone that works with him for an extended period…you see them after four months and they just look like a new creature. It’s crazy. It’s universal. Everyone I’ve ever seen is like that. He sees more potential in people than they usually see in themselves even if they think they’re really good dancers. He’s incredibly intuitive at diagnosing this person thinks they’re this type of dancer or this type of dancer, that these are their strengths and these are their weaknesses and he just throws that all out and makes you work on nothing but your weaknesses, in a way, and just get over whatever your particular issue is. He has this way of getting you to overcome the psychological idea of it and then all of a sudden you have this whole realm of capacity that you’ve been blocking off from yourself. It was horrible at first. He made me do all of these things that I hadn’t invested in because I didn’t think I could do them well, so I was doing all this stuff that I wasn’t good at and I felt like I was a terrible dancer. There’s this sort of break down process. Then after a couple of months, I started being good at them. After about a year, I felt limitless. I felt like I could do anything. I’ve taken that with me.
His choreography, technically speaking, is without question the most difficult choreography I’ve ever done. When he tells you what the step is that you’re supposed to do, you sort of look at him like “why would you even ask me to do that” and he wants you to do it in such a way that’s just off-handed, like you’re just playing with it. Really ridiculous things. His class is just impossible – literally. He doesn’t expect you to be able to do it perfectly. His whole process is about what will this person do when I give them something that they can’t just do. If I give them something that they can’t actually make happen, how will they respond? Will they shut down or get afraid, will they back off and not even try or will they go ok, I’m going to work on something, I’m going to make this happen. I think that’s why he’s especially good at working with people with really technical capacity. His company is full of a bunch of genetic freaks who probably elsewhere have never been challenged to their extreme, because most people don’t know what to do with it. Whether it’s a 6’1” woman who can do five pirouettes on pointe or a Prince Credell who can just pretty much do anything…he’s able to actually make something for them that challenges them and he challenges them constantly. He does that for anyone. It’s so tiring. It’s extremely athletic.
RB: What was the biggest shift coming to Hubbard Street after working with LINES?
BW: From a choreographic stand point, it’s quite a challenge to be switching styles so drastically, not just styles, but body approaches from hour to hour and figuring how that functions with your body. When it comes to musicality, really when it comes to choreography in general, Alonzo gives you a skeleton of movement and then expects you to improvise on top of it, just like a jazz musician. You have the score, then you play every time with changing the syncopation and the timing of how you do it and it’s always this experience of always searching for a different way to do it than you’ve done before. It’s very present, but it’s constantly shifting. It’s not in any way set, where something like Kylián, it’s often times really about the craft of choreography and you’re executing that broader idea for the choreographer, which is very valid, but at first, after having so much freedom in everything I did for a year and a half, to confine myself to have to make this shape on this count for this music, I had an adjustment period.
Alonzo has a really great understanding of how the body works in terms of the energy paths, especially in terms of ballet. To him, ballet is fifth position. He never leaves sous sous, because that’s the perfect sort of cross of energy even when you escape, you still have that same sense of connection and thus you’re able to do these really quick changes of directions and how you’re able to do these crazy things. It’s all directed from the pelvis, which is anatomical understanding. I had a revelation working with him again after a few years and hearing all of these things again.
RB: How are the other dancers taking to his style?
BW: I think everyone has adjusted to the push. It’s a different push than we’ve had for a while, because most of what we do is more down and for us to suddenly snap up is a shift.
Hubbard Street Summer Series – May 19 -22
Harris Theater for Music and Dance
Tickets: 312.850.9744 or hubbardstreetdance.com