Choreographing To A Sephardic Beat


Getting information out of the much-touted contemporary ballet choreographer Alonzo King, based in San Francisco, is a bit like prying teeth. He likes to keep things abstract, speak about universal truths, and give primacy to the viewer’s perspective.

“When I go to a museum, the last person I want to talk to is a docent,” King said by phone, before his company, Lines Ballet, presents the New York premiere next week of a piece set to Sephardic music. “For me, putting up descriptions [of my work] doesn’t tell the audience anything — they have to see for themselves.”

With his dancers, he is no less vague.

“I don’t know if I’m going to clarify a lot for you because he doesn’t tell us much about the pieces either,” said Meredith Webster, who for seven years has been dancing with Lines Ballet, which King co-founded with Robert Rosenwasser in 1982.

She said that when newcomers join the company, they often feel lost, frustrated. King gives very few specific details about the kind of movement he wants, and says even less about how his dances connect to the music — which is almost always culturally specific, ranging from the Pygmy music of Central Africa and Hindi-based tabla scores, to Arabic and now, with the New York premiere of “Resin,” Sephardic music.

But after awhile, Webster said, she’s come to appreciate King’s Delphic demeanor.

“Ultimately, the dances I create are mine,” she said, “and it’s not just me doing something for Alonzo.”

When pressed, King will reveal bits about the origins of “Resin,” which debuted in San Francisco last year. King’s parents were prominent black Civil Rights movement leaders, and he spent quite a bit of time traveling in his youth. Several visits to Turkey, North Africa and Morocco had given him an appreciation for the music of each of those cultures, and he’s already set works to music from each of those places.

In fact, “Resin,” which the Lines Ballet performs at The Joyce May 8-13, shares the bill with “Scheherazade,” from 2009, which is based on the Persian story “One Thousand and One Nights.”

“This was not new music to me,” King said of Sephardic music, referring to his familiarity with the other musical traditions from which it borrows. “In a sense, I grew up with it all my life.”

There have been more recent musical influences as well, and not all of them were Sephardic. Not long ago, King befriended the prominent Polish composer Pawel Szymanski, and through that experience, King came away with a deeper understanding of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

When King decided to set a piece to Sephardic music, he tapped a local musicologist, Francesco Spagnolo, for help.

King never made his intentions for the piece clear to Spagnolo, the curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, a Jewish museum affiliated with UC-Berkeley. But he did ask for as wide a sample of Sephardic music as Spagnolo could find.

Spagnolo, who had done extensive research at Hebrew University’s National Archives, which holds century-old field recordings of far-flung Sephardic communities, dug up everything he had.

He not only gave King the best original field recordings, but better- known recordings by the contemporary Sephardic viol player Jordi Savall, and recordings a few contemporary Israeli groups that re-interpret Sephardic music.

But both Spagnolo and King were most enamored by the original field recordings, Spagnolo said. One particular recording King ended up using was taken from a Yemenite Sephardic community in the 1960s.

“It’s a father teaching the aleph-bet to his son,” Spagnolo said, and the experience was acutely moving for them both. “They didn’t sing for an audience, but only for the quality of their lives.”

One recording that made it into “Resin” wasn’t even Sephardic. King wanted a dance scene that alluded to the movement of Jews praying, and Spagnolo gave him a recording of a Hungarian yeshiva student memorizing the Mishna, which is set to a specific melody.

“It has nothing to do with Sephardic sounds,” Spagnolo said. But King was apparently looking for something different; perhaps more abstract, less culturally specific.

King was initially worried about the inclusion of non-Sephardic music, and called up Spagnolo to ask if he thought if it was OK.

“Do you think I can put in it in a Sephardic piece?” King asked Spagnolo.

“I said, ‘Why are you looking at me?’” Spagnolo recounted. “‘You’re the choreographer.’”