Festival collaboration unites Alonzo King Lines Ballet with Zakir Hussain
EIF show fuses Indian classical music and contemporary American ballet
This article is from 2010.
The collaborations between choreographer Alonzo King and musician Zakir Hussain have yielded artistic excellence. Kelly Apter spoke to both men as they prepare to light up Edinburgh
Zakir Hussain was always destined for musical greatness: one look at his childhood bedtime routine will tell you that. For years he would come home from school and go straight to sleep, only to be awakened by his father at midnight to rehearse through the night until it was time to go back to school. A little unorthodox by most parenting standards, but just look at the results. By the age of 11, Hussain was replacing his father (Alla Rakha) on tour with the renowned Ravi Shankar; at 28 he played on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now; now he is regarded as one of the best Tabla players in the world, picking up a Grammy Award in 2009 to prove it.
Small wonder, then, that choreographer Alonzo King saw Hussain as an ideal collaborator. The two men have joined forces on four dance works, including the atmospheric Rasa, part of a double bill being performed by Alonzo King Lines Ballet at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. When I ask King what drew him to Hussain, his admiration is clear, both for the musician and the man. ‘One of the things that is so remarkable about Zakir is he really is a world citizen,’ says King. ‘Because of his love of music, he has collaborated with every kind of musician, from western classical to Indian classical to folk music and beyond. So when you’re that kind of ambassador, have travelled the world since you were 11, and have the kind of celebrated father he does, you know how to work with people. He has the confidence and inner smile of a conqueror and whatever situation he goes into, he knows he’s going to win, because he’s incredibly positive and brings mastery with him.’
Hussain will perform on stage alongside the dancers, joined by violinist and singer Kala Ramnath because, for King, the place where dance ends and music begins is seamless. ‘Zakir’s music is the piece, there’s no separation. Music and movement are inextricable. In Rasa, sometimes the choreographer is like a surfer, riding the wave of the music, and at other times fighting it. If the dancer is merely following the music, what’s the point in it being there? In a relationship, which is what this dance is, someone has to talk and someone has to listen: and we take turns in that.’
India-born Hussain is now based in King’s hometown of San Francisco. According to Hussain, it was inevitable their paths would one day cross. ‘Alonzo is so close to the Indian way of thinking. He meditates, does yoga and follows that way of life; so, living on the same side of the planet, it had to be that we would someday get together.’
Despite Hussain’s years of experience, working with King proved to be a substantial learning curve. For although Indian classical dance and American contemporary dance share a love of movement, they are worlds apart in structure, as Hussain discovered. ‘When you’re playing with Indian dancers, a certain amount of leeway is given to the drummer,’ he says. ‘You’re the principal instrumentalist on stage and you decide how the rhythms express the storytelling of the dance. With Alonzo, the story must be told unchanged, and that was very difficult for me to latch onto. But there is a great discipline to remembering how you spoke it yesterday and that’s something I learned working with Alonzo.’
The mutual appreciation between these talented men is clear, but aside from that, one thing shines through: the ease and informality of their working. Long days spent enjoying each other’s company, sharing food and ideas eventually led to an artistic outcome. The audience enjoys the result, but King and Hussain most certainly relish the process. ‘I grew up playing for Indian classical dancers, but there is an existing repertoire that you all learn,’ says Hussain. ‘So for me to compose something entirely new to play with a contemporary ballet was a great challenge. But sitting with Alonzo in my living room, talking about his feelings about movement and rhythm made it so easy to interact with him and come up with ideas. It was a pleasure, a joy.
Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 26–29 Aug, 8pm, £10–£28.50.