When the Vail International Dance Festival proposed to Alonzo King that he choreograph a new work featuring four members of his San Francisco company, Lines Ballet, and four from New York City Ballet, he knew just what he needed: a partner.
“The music is the thing, isn’t it?” he said. “A composer whose music you treasure and that you’ve worked with before and are going to work with again.”
For Mr. King, that had to be the jazz pianist Jason Moran. This summer, as part of the Vail festival, which opens on July 26, the pair will present the premiere of their latest collaboration. So far, it doesn’t have a title.
“It’s hard for me to name the baby,” Mr. King explained, “until it’s really born.”
The two will be putting finishing touches on the work in Colorado ahead of its premiere on Aug. 3. It’s the fourth collaboration between Mr. King and Mr. Moran, who have relished working together from the start. Their first artistic venture, “Refraction,” debuted in 2009, and their fifth, which includes the jazz musician Charles Lloyd, will happen this fall with Lines. The success of their artistic connection, Mr. King said, is rooted in how they are able to create space, allowing a dialogue to happen between the music and the dance.
“Who is going to lead here?” Mr. King said. “Who will be the principal instrument here? Will it be the dancer, will it be the sound? With Jason, it was just immediate that he could serve the dance. And it’s inevitable that he’s going to make great music.”
For Damian Woetzel, the artistic director of Vail, who commissioned the piece, part of what inspired it was the reaction — particularly by City Ballet dancers — to a Lines performance last summer there.
“Some of the dancers were gobsmacked,” Mr. Woetzel said. “That started a conversation: Wouldn’t it be amazing to have Alonzo do a new piece for the festival? And what if it was his dancers with City Ballet dancers? Alonzo quickly proposed Jason Moran, and I said, Oh my God.”
“We’re just in this beautiful opportunity,” he added, “for people to learn from each other and make something together on a different level.”
In considering collaborations, Mr. King said, he enjoyed them when they seemed “tricky or potentially perilous.”
And there is a prickly side to this one: Mr. King, after all, walked into the first rehearsal knowing only half of his cast: Adji Cissoko, Madeline DeVries, Shuaib Elhassan and Michael Montgomery, from Lines. Mr. Woetzel selected the dancers from City Ballet: Miriam Miller, Unity Phelan, Christopher Grant and Roman Mejia.
“That was really cool, because it was trust,” Mr. King said. “I had no say in it, and that was fine with me, and it turned out that Damian chose amazing people.”
Most important, the City Ballet performers were open and receptive. Mr. King said that he had walked into big companies in which a leading dancer might not want to veer from what was comfortable. “So when you have dancers who are willing to try new things,” he said, “and who aren’t narrowed down by a small definition of ‘I do this’ or ‘I do that,’ but think of themselves as an artist capable of anything, that’s fun.”
This probably has something to do with why, when Mr. King approaches Mr. Moran about collaborating on a new work, he always says yes. “It’s a challenge that I need to have in my practice,” Mr. Moran said. “Alonzo really goes for quite a wide palette of sound. And even the pieces that I think, Oh, Alonzo will love this, he’s like, ‘There’s no room in there, Jason.’”
Mr. Moran laughed. “I’m not a choreographer,” he continued. “I only know about how my body feels when I play it. So I think in all collaborations, you’re not necessarily looking for people who simply give you what’s on the top of your head. We want to dig deep together, and that’s what this allows.”
While, to his regret, Mr. Moran wasn’t trained as a dancer, he is profoundly affected by movement — and that includes his own. “If I’m not moving while I’m playing, “ he said, “I know the music is bad. That means something is stuck.”
Mr. Moran said that he had to make sure that he did not think of a sound as done once he had played the note, but “that it is still moving in the air and running into people’s bodies,” he said. “I guess in working with Alonzo and dancers, you really are allowed to see it or what it triggers.”
The new work’s score is spare and poignant, building toward a powerful finale to which the dancers move in unison. Here, Mr. King is continuing to explore a theme that has been at the root of his recent series of ballets.
“It’s this idea of communal harmony and unspoken contracts,” he said. “There’s something about chemistry and the manipulation of energies and how they’re placed. You’re building an architecture, and it’s based on the building materials, which are the dancers. You’re really creating something that’s living and formed out of who they are, and what the ideas are in the room.”
Mr. King’s dancers are both free and precise; they possess an uninhibited consciousness of their bodies in space. As Ms. Phelan, of City Ballet, said, “They’re not afraid to try anything.”
Mr. King’s approach to ballet technique has a philosophical side: His clear understanding of anatomy is a given, but on top of that is his transcendent way of discussing the motivation and mechanics behind a step.
While working with the dancers last month, he focused on the tendu, a basic yet integral ballet step that involves stretching the foot out while keeping it in contact with the floor. “You want to get as many angles as you can in the spectrum,” Mr. King said, as he opened his arms to show that the action wasn’t limited solely to the leg.
“Where do I tendu from?” he said. “Navel to finger. Navel to shoulder. So you radiate. You want to see rays.”
Pyrotechnics and self-aware displays of skill don’t hold much weight for Mr. King, whose movement is characterized by an ever-expanding fluidity. He is drawn to finding balance between the heart and the mind — “when there is a keen intelligence, but it’s balanced by the heart of a mother,” he said. “I often ask the dancers, regardless of sex, where is the mother in you?”
At their final rehearsal for the dance in New York before they would meet again in Colorado, Mr. King instructed Mr. Grant to open his arms by engaging the muscles of his back. “That’s where your wings are,” he said, explaining that with this approach, the movement “can taste space, it can reflect space.”
To the willowy Ms. Miller, he said: “I would love to see you do too much. What you think ‘too much’ is. You’re always the nice girl. I want to see your full power. Scare me.”
For Ms. Phelan, the experience has been a gift. “You want to give him everything, but he’s not expecting the world from you,” she said. “He just wants your best. He kept saying, ‘You’re just trying to be beautiful — I want you to be a beast, I want people to be afraid of you.’”
“I wrote that down,” she added. “I wrote down a lot of the things that he said so I’ll have them to look at when I need inspiration.”
As Mr. King sees it, dancing — and collaboration — is about ceaseless exploration.
“There are so many ways to view something, to interpret something, to participate in something,” he said. “To ask yourself: What is my motive? What does it mean in terms of science? What does it mean in terms of emotion and feeling? A lyricist needs a great singer, a great interpreter. The choreographer is the lyricist, and the dancer is the singer.”
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