When you find yourself searching for any adjective that would give justice to the level of spectacular that you saw in performance, you realize what you saw was truly unique. This was the case on March 3 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
One could feel the authenticity in the program presented by Alonzo King Lines Ballet. In a one-night-only performance as part of the Kravis’ innovative PEAK series, the artistry displayed in the collaborative work Deep River totally wowed the audience.
The unquestioned stars of the evening were the dancers — Adji Cissoko, Madeline DeVries, Ilaria Guerra, Maya Harr, Marusya Madubuko, Tatum Quiñónez, Babatunji (Johnson), Shuaib Elhassan, Joshua Francique, James Gowan, James Kirby Rogers. Each a phenomenon in their own right.
One could say that the realization of this multi-disciplinary artistic collaboration was 40 years in the making. The special formula for this particular melting pot of creativity was the coming together of dance visionary and master dance fabricator Alonzo King with those 11 stupendously talented dancers of the 40-year-old, San Francisco-based Alonzo King Lines Ballet together with Grammy Award-winning singer Lisa Fischer, MacArthur Fellow jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, lighting designer Jim French and costume designer Robert Rosenwasser. The outstanding result was the 65-minute work Deep River, performed without intermission.
When Alonzo King choreographs, he urges his dancers to reach deep into their bodies to find their own muscular and spiritual energies and inspirations. This deep personal exploration was what made it so fascinating to view the performers, whether they were highlighted in solos and duets or dancing in the ensemble sections.
Woven into the mostly full company ensemble choreography were well-placed moments where one could focus fully on just one or two dancers at a time. A sense of intimacy was created as each dancer had their moment to be really seen before they converged back into the group. As the work progressed, the growing sense of familiarity with the members of the ensemble made them appear as a community of highly individual members.
Inserted towards the beginning of the work — amid the exhilarating group dancing — was one intentionally barren and quiet scene of a man slowly crossing the stage struggling to carry the limp and lifeless body of a women. It was a stark reminder of life’s fragility.
Whenever she was onstage, I could not take my eyes off Adji Cissoko. She is the most extraordinary dancer, one who was an absolute standout in this performance. Her lithe body is an exceptional tool for dance. Her leg extensions were endless and her artistry and dedication for the choreography was detailed and nuanced. When she left the stage after her various solos and duets, all I wanted was for her to return so I could see more of her exquisite dancing.
As the dance evolved, the costumes, lighting and staging evolved. There were different muted costumes for nearly every ensemble section and by the end of the work, some of the women had risen to dancing on pointe. This variety — though subtle — contributed to the sense of a journey in Deep River.
Ilaria Guerra was powerful in her solo with its gestural style danced to the sound of bells, as was James Gowen in his solo, with its multiple turns and holds amidst a flurry of well-executed movement to Moran’s discordant notes on the piano. James Kirby Rogers was an upbeat bolt of energy each time he took the stage.
Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan were a beautiful pairing. In their first duet, Elhassan was an effortless partner in the luscious movement choreographed to the slow music of a saxophone. The partnering was so different. If it had not been done by these dancers, the shapes in the partnering might have been seen as ungainly but the two were so connected, their body lines were so beautiful and there was such subtle shading in their motion, that it completely drew me in.
At one point, to what sounded like cap guns being fired, Gowan and Maya Harr had a very unusual “duet” that involved the two of them — face to face — just laughing out loud, back and forth to each other, in an increasingly hysterically manner.
One of the more outstanding solos was danced by Babatunji to the “Black national anthem,” Lift Every Voice and Sing. Showing a very different type of movement that was bounded to the ground, Babatunji’s loose and fluid athletic style was a marvel to watch.
Deep River ended quietly with a final and beautiful duet for Cissoko and Elhassan. To single notes of the piano, Cissoko balancing on pointe in the off-balance partnering by Elhassan looked as if she were a willowy reed over-bending in the wind.
It was easy to lose oneself in the richness of Lisa Fischer’s recorded voice which was so visceral that I felt I could reach out and pull it close around my shoulders like a blanket. The score by Moran (which also included additional music by Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel, and James Weldon Johnson) took us on a journey from full orchestra to a single piano, all woven together with Fischer’s breathtaking singing. Fischer has a rich history of musical collaborations with the likes of Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Yo-Yo Ma.
There was another component to this evening-length dance work that was especially challenging but also integral. It was the COVID -19 pandemic. Forced into three years of artistic confinement, the artists of Lines Ballet traveled to various remote locations in order to continue creating work during this time of dearth for the art form, and this experience gave a real edge to Deep River’s theme of remaining fundamentally positive regardless of dire circumstances.
A standing ovation was the immediate and explosive response of the audience. It was long-lasting and very well-deserved. Unfortunately, a performance of this caliber is just as ephemeral as dance has always been. You want to hold it — to clasp it in your memory, only to recognize that you can’t.
When it is over, just little memories of this movement or that moment linger. All the energy, the focus and purpose that had come together to build the amazing synergy of that night’s performance ebb away. If only there was a replay button to hit.