Life’s contradictions permeate Deep River from Alonzo King LINES Ballet

United StatesUnited States Alonzo King, Deep River: Dancers of Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, 9.6.2023. (JRo)

Alonzo King LINES Ballet performing Deep River © Elaina Francis

Original music – Jason Moran, Lisa Fischer
Music – Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel, James Weldon Johnson
Lighting – Jim French
Costumes and Sets – Robert Rosenwasser
Sound – Philip Perkins

Dancers – Babatunji, Adji Cissoko, Madeline DeVries, Theo Duff-Grant, Lorris Eichinger, Shuaib Elhassan, Joshua Francique, James Gowan, Ilaria Guerra, Maya Harr, Marusya Madubuko, Michael Montgomery, Tatum Quiñónez

Vocals – Lisa Fischer

With an adept company of dancers who can move with ease from grand jeté to earthbound slump, from piqué turns to flat-footed spins, Alonzo King has created Deep River. King, a master of melding traditional ballet with contemporary dance, draws on both Western and Eastern traditions of movement.

Deep River put me in mind of the far-reaching influence of the pioneering Noa Eshkol, a twentieth-century interdisciplinary artist who developed a movement notation system that catalogued the motion of every limb around its joint – a system that could describe every perceptible movement of the body. Eshkol’s impact has filtered directly or indirectly into much of modern dance. Videos of dancers demonstrating her system as documented by filmmaker Sharon Lockhart have the look of tai chi, tribal rituals, animals and birds.

It was animals and birds that I found myself thinking of as I watched King’s latest offering: a pirouette with arms flapping suggested a bird, a body folded in half over straight legs with feet flat on the floor conjured a primate, a couple collapsing in laughter had the hysterical edge of hyenas, while a leg planted on the ground with the other bent at the knee evoked a stork.

Alonzo King LINES Ballet performing Deep River © Elaina Francis

Deep River is a 65-minute work, created during the pandemic. King calls it ‘a love letter to a world writhing in pain’. Gestures of pain intermingled with subdued hopefulness. James Gowan, a sprightly principal, held his head as if battling illness then erupted into joyful entrechats. In a fascinating sequence of movements, the nimble and fearless Adji Cissoko was propelled into the arms of a male partner, hugging him desperately as the force of her body tilted him backwards on his heels into the arms of two dancers. Righting himself, he tossed her to a waiting dancer, and she ricocheted back to her partner as if attached to an elastic band. It was a Sisyphean moment of defeat snatched from the jaws of hope.

Hope comes in the beguiling form of Lisa Fischer, whose onstage vocals, including the eponymous song, ‘Deep River’, lent pathos to the performance and exalted the choreography. Without drawing attention to herself, but with a strong stage presence, she rendered spiritual music from Jewish and Black traditions with power and dignity.

Jason Moran’s recorded piano could be heard along with orchestral versions of a score that used Moran’s original music with the music of Fischer, Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel and James Weldon Johnson. Unfortunately, some of the more percussive choices felt incompatible with Fischer’s singing and created a musical patchwork rather than an integrated whole.

Robert Rosenwasser’s tasteful costumes in burnished shades of copper and plum enhanced the production, lending Deep River the same quiet power as did Fischer’s singing. Lighting by Jim French contributed to the reverential atmosphere, whether the company danced before a black backdrop or a wall lit with a rosy glow.

For sheer power, the dancing of Babatunji was notable. Not only does he possess the versatility common to all of King’s dancers, but he also demonstrated superb musicality. It’s not easy to imbue King’s Deep River choreography with lyricism – it is mostly driven by rapid changes of movement and texture – but Babatunji, with his expressive arms and hands, turned the simple act of rubbing palms together into a poetic burst. In another moment, he broke into a trot with his partner, opening up the choreography and letting it breathe. The statuesque Shuaib Elhassan also impressed in his dramatic solo parts.

As for the structure of the work, I found it somewhat haphazard. Rather than a unified whole, Deep River felt more like a series of individual dances. In one section, the company, assembled in two lines, crisscrossed past each other like threads woven in a tapestry. Perhaps this was the intention: to create a tapestry of life with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and, as stated so succinctly by King, ‘to bloom the lotus in the muck’.

Jane Rosenberg

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