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The message is in the MOVEMENT

Alonzo King’s dances reflect a world of influences

“I’ve always felt that people’s movements reveal more about them than what they say,’’ says choreographer Alonzo King. “I’ve always felt that people’s movements reveal more about them than what they say,’’ says choreographer Alonzo King. (Rj Muna)
By Valerie Gladstone
Globe Correspondent / January 22, 2010

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On the dark stage, a dancer moves deliberately within the confines of a rectangle of light, extending her arms as if she is swimming through air. Leaning forward, she travels a few steps in a crouch before rising on pointe and gesturing like an animal flaunting its power. Two men draw near, roughly pushing each other before one takes her hand and swings her in a circle. She falls back and forth between them, a Poulenc hymn underlining the solemnity of their ritual. Over time the music changes to Corelli concertos, and three more dancers join them, the group forming and reforming in duos and trios, echoing life’s shifting relationships.

Like so many dances by the celebrated choreographer Alonzo King, “Dust and Light’’ resembles poetry in motion.

“As I get older,’’ he says by phone, “I feel a sense of urgency to bring something to people. With longevity, you have the opportunity to go deeper.’’ His troupe, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, makes its much anticipated Boston debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art tonight through Sunday, with a program including “Dust and Light’’ and the thrilling “Signs and Wonders,’’ which is set to indigenous drumming and vocals by various African tribes.

Asked why it took so long for the troupe to come to Boston, given its exposure in so many other American and European cities, King says, “It’s impossible to know why. We don’t produce ourselves, so we rely on presenters who are interested in the work. The presenter who is bringing us also said he thought it curious. But at least now we’re coming.’’

Since establishing the company in San Francisco in 1982, King has won acclaim for work that meshes classical ballet’s formality with modern dance’s pro pulsion and angularity, then adds an array of diverse cultural traditions. No less than William Forsythe, director of the Frankfurt Ballet, said, “Alonzo King is one of the few true ballet masters of our times.’’

King’s aesthetic is the result of an array of influences. The choreographer, who declines to give his age, was born in Georgia into a distinguished and politically active black family, with a father who was a part of the Albany civil rights movement and a friend of Malcolm X, and a mother who introduced him to the arts. King spent most of his youth in California, where his parents moved after their divorce. In his teens, he attended a Boston boarding school and studied dance in the summers at the School of American Ballet in New York. He briefly attended Fisk University before turning all his attention to dance, performing for a decade with Dance Theater of Harlem, Santa Barbara Ballet, and other companies.

King brought an idiosyncratic sensibility to his choreography from the start, a result of his wide-ranging musical taste - from jazz and Western classical to Indian and African traditions - and his extensive reading of Jungian psychology and Eastern and Western philosophy. He also loves to paint, to sing, to write, and to play music. Such inclusiveness has won him devoted audiences at home and abroad and commissions from more than 50 troupes, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Frankfurt Ballet, and the Hong Kong Ballet. He has also taught master classes at London’s Ballet Rambert, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, and the National Ballet of Canada, among others. In 1989, he established a ballet school and center that shares quarters with the company.

“I’ve always felt that people’s movements reveal more about them than what they say,’’ King says. “Movement is so primordial and serves as an undercurrent for all we do. So from the beginning I wanted to investigate many kinds of movement in order to expand my vocabulary.’’

But for all his worldliness, King often begins a dance with a very simple idea. A childhood memory sparked “Dust and Light.’’ “I remember as kid,’’ he says, “being awestruck by looking out the window and seeing dust particles sparkling in the sunlight. They contained so much beauty. Light is everything. That’s what started me on this dance.’’

As the work progresses and the dancers create potent images with their breathtaking extensions, rapid-fire leaps, and transitory couplings, it actually seems as if light is passing through their bodies, transcending their physical selves. But of course to achieve the appearance of this heightened and almost mystical state, the dancers must be in full sympathy with King’s objectives.

King begins a dance by giving them phrases to work on, exploring them in various combinations. Then he tries to discover where they fit best, in time piecing the sections together like a puzzle. He doesn’t discuss meaning. He doesn’t correct their techniques.

“Alonzo puts enormous trust in us,’’ says company member Meredith Webster. “It’s why I love to dance in his company. He wants us to make the work our own. He likes us to take liberties, to explore it together and to find ourselves in it, not put it on like a costume. He’ll never say ‘get your leg higher,’ but he might say, ‘make the movement hotter’ or ‘give it royalty.’ You learn to translate his language.’’

While dancers thrive in this atmosphere, it isn’t necessarily easygoing. Now in his eighth year with the troupe, Brett Conway says, “Alonzo sometimes pushes you into uncomfortable positions, meaning places where you feel vulnerable. He wants you to grow as an artist. It works, but it’s hard. Now that I’ve been with him for so long, I see more clearly how he does this with new dancers - to get them to test their expectations of themselves. There’s depth here, and you have to open yourself up and go for it.’’

The dancers grew to love “Dust and Light’’ very quickly, in part because of the beauty of the score. They find it inspiring. “It’s so gorgeous and so supportive,’’ Webster says. “It makes it easy to match the movement to the music.’’ Though the ballet is abstract, Conway develops characters for himself in every section, inventing stories to better convey the spirit of the piece. “That’s the freedom Alonzo gives us,’’ he says. “It’s exhilarating.’’

King likes to hear these kinds of things. He uses the word “true’’ frequently to describe what he’s after. So we can connect with his work, he tries to convey what makes us human in all the very complicated ways. “Dance always moved me,’’ he says, “I mean moved my spirit. It fills me with joy. I want others to feel that.’’

ALONZO KING LINES BALLET Presented by World Music/CRASHarts at the Institute

of Contemporary Art,

tonight through Sunday.

Tickets: $40. 617-876-4275,

www.WorldMusic.org