A quest for diversity is not what drives San Francisco dancemaker Alonzo King, although he has paired his ballet dancers with such artistically divergent collaborators as tabla master Zakir Hussain, former Coltrane saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the Nzamba Lela, a group of Pygmy musicians and dancers from Central Africa. Diversity is actually a trick, he argues, just as sameness is—people can feel as though they're living in a foreign country even within their own families. What drives him instead is the desire to work with people who are skilled at whatever their craft may be. "I look for people who do things well," he says.

Such was his interest in collaborating with China's Shaolin monks. What the monks didn't share with King's nine-member LINES Contemporary Ballet—speech and movement idioms, to start—was secondary to what they did. "They're movers," says King of the monks, who practice a martial art form called "wushu." They trained at the Shaolin Temple and Monastery in Henan Province, China, and later migrated to Fremont, Calif., to open a Shaolin temple there. In 2007, LINES and the monks debuted Long River, High Sky, which will open White Bird's 2008-2009 season.

King says his primary concern was that the work be "beautiful and living," conveying the sense of wonder one feels when stepping into nature or falling in love. The piece is divided into two parts. In the first half, the ballet dancers and the monks demonstrate their respective movement styles. In the second, the monks school the dancers in Shaolin technique. The monks are known for an acrobatic kung fu style, with high kicks and fast punches, while King's contemporary ballets tend toward lean lines and off-kilter balances. What the practitioners share is a physical intensity and a genuine interest in stretching the boundaries of their respective disciplines.

"People at the very high end of their fields are great listeners," says King, and great viewers, attentive to what rings false or true. "It's like when you meet people—you're looking for their motives."


Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 790-2787. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 24. $20-$50.