The San Francisco-based company visits Brookfield's Wilson Center.

Alonzo King is a traditionalist. The dancers in Alonzo King Lines Ballet do not wear pointe shoes, but they don’t wear Chuck Taylor’s either. And the vocabulary the company displayed at its Saturday concert at Brookfield’s Wilson Center was firmly rooted in the roots of ballet that go back to Marius Petipa and friends.

But King is not a dull traditionalist. The three works on the program gleefully asked an age-old question: How far you can you take a tradition before it becomes something new?

Of course, the first name you think of here is George Balanchine, who built on the classical tradition and revolutionized ballet for the 20th century. So it’s no accident that one of King’s recent works (2013)—which opened the program—is danced to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, the setting for Concerto Barocco, one of Balanchine’s signature ballets.

Robb Beresford, Laura O'Malley, Michael Montgomery and Kara Wilkes in Concerto for Two Violins. Photo by Quinn B Wharton.

Robb Beresford, Laura O’Malley, Michael Montgomery and Kara Wilkes in Concerto for Two Violins. Photo by Quinn B Wharton.

King’s take on Bach grows from the same soil as Balanchine’s: the fugal interplay of the two solo violins is often mimicked in two solo dancers, and the ensemble of dancers is arrayed across the stage in strikingly elegant arrangements. But King takes Balanchine’s stretch of classical technique even farther. When Kara Wilkes (a Milwaukee native who trained at the Milwaukee Ballet School) steps in to one of her solo turns in the first movement, there is an almost frenetic athleticism—jazzy arms splayed wide and a leg extension with flexed foot. We’re not in Balanchine territory, any more. And in the languorous second movement, King has fun with Balanchine’s “daisy chain” motif, building much of the movement on a quartet of linked dancers who seem barely able to stand up or stay awake.

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The “Men’s Quintet” that followed (excerpted from 2008’s The Radius of Convergence) had some roots in Martha Graham style neo-classicism, which a “chorus” of four dancers serving as an ensemble backdrop for Michael Montgomery’s dazzling solo work.

Robb Beresford, Babatunji and Michael Montgomery in Biophony. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton.

Robb Beresford, Babatunji and Michael Montgomery in Biophony. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton.

But that sense of ensemble was a rare thing in Biophony (2015), the featured final dance, which pushes hard at ballet traditions. The soundscape is almost entirely composed of wildlife recordings by Bernie Krause—crickets, elephants, Kenyan watering holes replete with the cries of frogs, hippos and Colobus monkeys. Occasionally, a melody and four-square rhythm will creep in, with the ensemble falling into a few unison phrases. But for the most part, Biophony is a physically poetic evocation of two sorts of natural wonders—both the dance’s animal subjects and the astonishing dancers of King’s company. Krause calls his soundscape “the tuning of the great animal orchestra,” and the movement vocabulary of Biophony is both imitation and response. It’s easy to see the fauna in the twitchy wrists, the yawningly stretched limbs, or the impossible contortionism. But it is also one choreographer’s response to a musical score of sorts—an attempt to wind the ballet clock back to the most primordial gestures, even before music helped dance find its Baroque rigor and sense of order. I don’t know if Biophony succeeds in its aspiration to bring us back to an Edenic unity of flower, beast and humankind, but it treats us to the capacity of an amazing group of dancers and the man who helped shape them.

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