By CINDY SHEARER, faculty member and program chair of the MFA in Writing and Consciousness and the MFA in Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts
“How can I contribute more?” I noticed right away that Alonzo King, Artistic Director of LINES Ballet didn’t ask the dancers “How can you contribute more?” The difference between the two questions was subtle but sharp—Alonzo’s approach is to ask the dancers to ask themselves.
I was lucky to be at Thursday rehearsal in Studio Five in the LINES Dancer Center just two weeks before the San Francisco opening of Scheherazade. From my folding chair, I leaned into the space across the room from where the dancers stood in a circle around Alonzo. Then in a voice less like a directive and more like an invitation, Alonzo asked them to give more to each moment—by not being tired or hungry, distracted or overwhelmed—but by bringing more to the characters at the core of their movements. All looked right him as he spoke.
It didn’t surprise me that Alonzo focused on the inner performance rather than the physical one. In my conversations with him, he’s avoided the labels offered to him such as choreographer or director. Instead, he identifies as an artist—sure that all artists tap into and draw from the same creative sources whatever their mediums. Artists always have the chance to bring themselves all the way into their work, he believes, to not hold back, not resist. In every moment, to make a maximum contribution.
“If your character is not your temperament,” he told one dancer, “then you’ll have to overdo the moments.” What I understood him to mean was that this dancer will have to overreach to find the right tone or expression for his movements. If he doesn’t overreach, he won’t be able get far enough outside himself to find the genuineness of the character within.
The lesson applies widely to art-making. To make art beyond ourselves, we have to reach within and beyond ourselves. Deep within to find the clarity necessary to communicate a moment or feeling, an action or process. Beyond ourselves to feel and experience the contrasts necessary to locate a character within us or the character of what we want to convey.
Alonzo’s approach speaks to the value for artists, as learners and professionals, in training and practice, to speak across the disciplines to each other. “I want to see change,” Alonzo said. Then looking at two of his dancers went on, “I need to see the character within your movements.” He talked about how for a character to work both clarity and contrast must be visible. He might have been teaching a fiction writing class.
“We need fervor.” The dancers looked again intently into his face. “Does that make sense?” He asked this several times during the afternoon—did they get the meaning? He knows they need to understand the meaning of what he is asking, of the opportunity offered them through dance, in order to achieve it.
After rehearsal, I looked up fervor. Not surprisingly it means to two somewhat-related things: (1) warmth or glow—a radiating heat, and (2) intense heat—intensity and heat. Its meanings come from the Latin fervor meaning “heat” and fervere to “glow, boil”. Fervor heats from within and moves out.
Fervor is the artist’s path to clarity and contrast. Clarity radiates out, obliterating any line or space between the person and the character, the story and the performance, the dancer and the dance. Contrast is conflict. An intense heat within stories, characters and our layers of being that unsettle us and require us to act. Fervor manifests art, taking us beyond the process of contribution to the act of commitment. With fervor, we contribute all we can.
Alonzo asked the dancers to give more and when they did, he acknowledged what he saw. “There—that intensity,” or “you had it when you started,” he said. As the dancers moved across the floor, I could hear him say, “Stay with it. Stay with it. Don’t relax.”
“It brings me joy to see people change. It gives me hope for myself,” he said as he returned to his chair. 5, 6, 7, the music started again and so did dance. “Stay with it. Stay with it,” I thought to myself. “Don’t relax.”