When choreographer Alonzo King received a commission last year from the Monaco Dance Forum to create a new Scheherazade -- the work his LINES Ballet will bring to Tulsa this weekend -- he knew he had a lot of work to do to get past what he called the "very Cecil B. DeMille" orientalism (harems, jeweled turbans, hookah pipes) associated with the story of the 1,001 Nights.
But digging deeper is what King is all about.
In the almost two hundred pieces he has created, he explores the idea that, in his words, "the principle expression of life is movement.
"There is a constant rhythm and sound in the cosmos, that rhythm and sound has an alliance with the human body, and that rhythm and sound can be plugged into for healing and knowledge."
Meditating on the story of Scheherazade, King discerned in it a profound symbolic meaning.
In the ancient tale from the folk traditions of Persia and Egypt, a Sultan who, hurt by betrayal, has killed every one of his thousands of wives marries Scheherazade at her request. An erudite woman, she begins each night to tell him a story, keeping him so enthralled that he never has a chance to think of killing her.
After 1,001 nights of her stories, the Sultan finds that he has fallen in love with Scheherazade -- that she has transformed him. He spares her life, and they live together in harmony as Sultan and Queen.
The story of the 1,001 Nights has been passed down for millennia. Why has humankind been so fascinated by this tale of the Sultan and the storyteller?
"Scheherazade is the symbol of the savior," King said in a 2010 interview with Le Monde. "She weaves tales not to save her own life, but to save humanity from its unending retributive response to injury. [She] is the representative of the Divine Mother -- the mother of compassion. The Sultan represents suffering humankind. How does [she] transform him? Through telling stories."
King suggested that the "real story" of Scheherazade is about the importance of listening to "the intuitive principle in humanity," so that cycles of violence might be broken.
In his new ballet, King sought to go beyond a stereotyping "orientalism" with this more subtle, universal point of view. In place of the music of the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, to which the original Ballets Russes version of Scheherazade was set in 1910, he brought in Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain (a frequent collaborator) to write an original score. It features ancient Persian rhythms and instruments -- some "literally as old as the pyramids," he said -- alongside Western ones.
Collaboration is a major driver of the LINES Ballet, as it was for the Ballets Russes, whose centenary this work was commissioned to celebrate. King has worked with artists such as avant-garde jazz pianist Jason Moran and even Chinese Shaolin monks on new works over the years, finding in the union of different styles and forms a revelatory connection to transcendent truths.
The son of two prominent civil rights activists, King founded LINES Ballet in San Francisco in 1982 with the intention to "draw on a diverse set of deeply rooted cultural traditions and imbue classical ballet with new expressive potential."
King has won nearly every choreographic award in the United States, and several of his company members have received the prestigious Princess Grace Award for excellence in dance. He established the well-regarded LINES Ballet School in San Francisco as well as a four-year BFA dance program in partnership with Dominican University of California.
King's company, which will be performing in Oklahoma for the first time this weekend, has long been at the forefront of what is known as contemporary ballet. It's a style that seeks to return to the essence of classical movement, outside the history-bound confines of the so-called classical tradition. (Think dying swans, princesses, and tutus.)
In King's words, "straight line and circle, magnetism, gravitational pull, balance, circumference, radius, and nucleus are some of the sources of the form" that contemporary ballet explores.
"The reason for this work and all work is love," King said. "That is the motivation behind it, what one wants others to feel from it, and what one wants to feel oneself from it. I'm not speaking of romantic sentiment but of the powers that hold the universes together in their structure, reason, and illumination-bound destiny."
"A dance maker has the honor of having people silence themselves and give focus for a period of two hours," he continued. "What an amazing occurrence in our too-busy, speedy lives.
"So with that time you have the responsibility of offering something of value, something that is true and well done, that awakens memory, and shatters the stultifying mental pandemic that we are weak, whining mortals, and reminds us that we are gods."
Ken Tracy, whose Choregus Productions is presenting the company's Oklahoma premier, saw Scheherazade in San Francisco and called it "a beautiful piece, from the music to the lighting to the costumes, and most of all the dancing. It's an amazing opportunity for our Tulsa audience to see an astounding work of contemporary dance.
"Alonzo King has an amazing following in Europe and I'm pleased that the Choregus dance patrons will have an opportunity to see why."
While in town, LINES Ballet will also present their show for hundreds of Tulsa Public Schools students at a special educational performance.
King said he and his company "are looking forward to coming to Tulsa, and eager to share our art with your community, our larger community."
Alongside Scheherazade, Alonzo King LINES Ballet will perform Dust and Light, set to the Baroque music of Arcangelo Corelli and choral hymns by Francis Poulenc.
Performances are Sept. 16 and 17 at 8pm, in the Williams Theater of the Performing Arts Center.
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