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Deep River

Choreography, for many, is a mystical art, and one that needs bodies on which to create movement. So, when the pandemic forced a lockdown in 2020, Alonzo King, artistic director and co-founder of the San Francisco-based Alonzo King Lines Ballet, did what he does best, albeit under far different circumstances: He worked inside the troupe’s studios, but in confined bubbles; he sculpted his dancers’ bodies outside at Golden Gate Park; and, among other places, he fashioned forms on a farm in Arizona, all in order to build work for the company’s 40th anniversary.

Performance

Alonzo King LINES: “Deep River”

Place

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, CA, June 9 & 10, 2023

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Adji Cissoko and Lorris Eichinger in “Deep River.” Photograph by Elaina Francis

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What emerged was the soulful, elegiac and achingly beautiful, “Deep River.” Having had its world premiere in the City by the Bay last year, the 65-minute piece was performed over two nights at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts last weekend (and on May 27 at Segerstrom Hall) to worshipful, sold-out crowds, with the racially diverse cast of 13 leaning into their art to create mesmerizing and magnificent tableaux. 

In other words, it was signature King: elongated, oblique moves, accentuated with filigreed arms, and deft and articulated footwork.

Indeed, with original music by dance’s latest go-to composer, 2010 Macarthur Fellow Jason Moran, who is also Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, with an additional mélange of sounds by the late Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel and James Wheldon Johnson (all heard on tape), the work also featured Grammy Award-winning Lisa Fischer crooning live onstage. 

Babatunji and Alonzo King LINES dancers in “Deep River.” Photograph by Elaina Francis

In short, this aural combo (sound design by Philip Perkins), a blend of spiritual music from both the Black and Jewish traditions, proved the perfect accompaniment to the dance (yes, according to King, bits of Ravel’s “Kaddish” were used, with the entire soundtrack chosen because he, “wanted to address the idea that regardless of what you’re going through, no matter how difficult things are, there is a choice for another focus and nothing lasts forever, inevitably things will change.”)

Okay, but about his movement: Performing on a darkened stage framed only by black curtains (Robert Rosenwasser’s set design) with Jim French’s overhead lighting grid classy and visible, the entire company began in silence, their stances angled, their shadows setting the tone for a work of reverence. Soon, unison footwork led to a trio of women leaping, as Fischer, who’s worked with King before and has also toured with, among others, the Rolling Stones and Tina Turner, embarked on her vocal journey, at times singing with not one, but two microphones.

Lisa Fischer and Alonzo King LINES dancers in “Deep River.” Photograph by Elaina Francis

Movers came together, came apart, beholding one another, looking upward, with an array of fluttering hands, not unlike a murmuration of birds, ending in dead stops, their bodies collapsing and then becoming regally upright. Various combinations yielded duets, with Shuaib Elhassan carrying the lifeless body of the long-limbed Adji Cissoko—curiously, while Fischer was singing the spiritual, “Motherless Child.” 

Cissoko proved a stand-out among the evening’s stars, at one instance launching into six o’clock extensions, balancing on pointe the next, and then resembling a Louise Nevelson spider sculpture, her sinewy arms and arachnid-like legs part of the picture in yet another moment of sublime splendor.  

Also a scene of startling originality: Cissoko leaped onto Joshua Francique, who, after leaning backwards into both James Gowan and Theo Duff-Grant, then tosses the ballerina into the air, neo-Cirque du Soleil-style. Caught by Babatunji, a veritable combination of lightning bolt and demi-God, the precious cargo that is Cissoko was then embraced.

The enticing male-male duet executed by Babatunji and Francique also offered a riveting back-bending pose, the men holding hands and semi-squatting, as well as deploying a posture akin to a Rubik’s Cube, their limbs impossibly interlocked in a move one definitely should not try at home.

Babatunji win “Deep River.” Photograph by Elaina Francis

Clad in Rosenwasser’s simple but stunning, earth-toned costumes (changed between scenarios)—the gals in body-hugging tunics, the bare-chested men in trunks or flowy skirts—these terpischores often moved as if possessed. Hello, again, Gowan, who shone in his solo, tossing off pirouettes with ease, as well as executing one-legged balances, jetés and pretzel-like contortions. And partnered with Madeline DeVries, their slapstick-ish pas de deux included body-slapping, skittering and faux laughing—from them, the soundtrack or both—that, in either case, was a rambunctious and welcome divertissement.   

Several women dancers, sporting pointe shoes in one segment, casually cavorted about, as if this were a, well, walk in the park. If the park, that is, consists of a Marley floor, with the inhabitants capable of mindboggling moves. Enter again, the astonishingly facile Babatunji, in an electrifying solo performed near Fischer, who was singing a variation of the Black anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Whether standing in a half-lunge or grounded on one knee while balancing on one arm, his other leg aslant yet pointing skyward, Babatunji was beseeching an unknown specter, as a group of dancers beheld one of their own. 

Completing the cast: Ilaria Guerra, Maya Harr, Marusya Madubuko, Tatum Quiñónez, and Lorris Eichinger; while a stunning duet between Cissoko and Elhassan, set to the lone notes of a solo piano with perhaps a whiff of synthesizer, signaled the work’s end, and again marked King’s delicious balletic vocabulary, one that invites, no, insists, personal exploration, of body, mind and, yes, soul. 

Like its title, “Deep River,” the work ebbed and flowed, plumbing our humanity—and the need for connection—along the way. 

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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