Alonzo King LINES Ballet
The Rose Theater at Lincoln Center
New York, New York

February 22, 2024
Deep River

Jerry Hochman

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions about Deep River, Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s new dance that had its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater Thursday night for a brief three-performance run. Part of the reason for that is a consequence of not having seen very much of King’s choreography before (only Single Eye, which he created for American Ballet Theatre, and a piece he choreographed for New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Tiler Peck) and my consequent unfamiliarity with King’s choreographic style; part because, although Deep River’s heart is in the right place, there’s too much there there; and part, as I’ll explain below, because I couldn’t make out the words of one of the songs he selected.

After two viewings, I punted on King’s Single Eye, twice; I’ll not do the same with Deep River. On the whole, and despite concerns I have (some of which I’ll outline below), it’s a highly spiritual dance that, one way or another, can touch the soul if one makes the effort to pull it all together in a way that makes sense – otherwise, it’s a jumble of mostly animated bodies. King’s motivations are reasonably clear, and his dancers are a superb group.

Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan (in spotlight)
and Alonzo King LINES Ballet in “Deep River”
Photo by Richard Termine

On initial observation, Deep River displays King’s sampling of a variety of forms of god-worship or god-searching. It doesn’t look like he’s tracing some sort of evolution as much as noting a continuing preoccupation with identifying, locating, and paying homage to some outside force that might control us all, destroy us all, uplift us all, or love us all.

However, because of its early individually-focused image of two people struggling together and his final image of the same two people obviously satisfied with what they’ve found together, coupled with my post-performance understanding of one of the dance’s song segments, that’s not what I think King’s getting at here. Rather, corny as it sounds, it’s to find spiritual serenity. It’s a kind of faith, and it’s internal.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Deep River premiered roughly two years as the signature piece of the company’s 40 year anniversary celebration. The San Francisco-based company that King founded in 1982 has achieved an enviable world-wide reputation for its melding of contemporary dance with ballet, as well as for its cross-genre collaborations. And Alonzo King LINES Ballet (hereafter, “LINES”) is a particularly apt name for the company – one quality that permeates his choreography here, and I suspect in his other company pieces, is the sense of “lines” – not horizontal or vertical lines of dancers, but lines of structural form of which there are an abundance within any of the Deep River’s thirteen separately delineated segments. And this dance’s title is particularly apt as well, not only for the metaphoric deep rivers of our individual and group psyches, but also for the rivers of faith or hope or fear or all of the above that flow through human history.

Based on Deep River, there’s a sense of continuing motion that makes King’s dance flow (ok, like a river) seamlessly from one point to another. While to me that’s admirable, there’s another side to it – it’s difficult to determine where one segments ends and the next begins without noting the number of dancers involved; and even knowing that, in most cases the transitions are so fluid that deciphering even that is difficult. But I’d trade a staccato presentation of multiple dance segments for overall fluidity any day.

I wouldn’t describe King’s choreography as generally frenetic, although it often looks that way because of the manner in which the stage scenes change – seemingly almost second by second. Although I didn’t understand the connections between individual gyrations displayed on stage and the apparent theme, they were nevertheless expressed clearly, with the dominating movement quality being at times angular, at times balletic, at times staccato, at times with small groups simply sitting and watching one or more other dancers, and at all times presenting a sense of elongated lines in the air.

The dance’s thirteen segments consist of songs or melodies or musical structures generally taken from Jewish, Black, and Hindu sources – and there may be more mixed in. With some classical music exceptions, the dance’s score was created by jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, with whom King has frequently collaborated, and Lisa Fischer, a composer and singer whose voice is gently volcanic. Although neither was involved in each performance segment, in the performance I saw (and I suspect the others as well), Moran was the pianist and Fischer the vocalist, both appearing live.

Adji Cissoko
in Alonzo King’s “Deep River”
Photo by Richard Termine

There’s a definite trajectory to the dance, but one that’s not easy to track. Deep River doesn’t outline some evolutionary spiritual experience, although the dance’s progression might lead one to believe that. Rather, it’s more an historical representation, combined, ultimately, with enlightened recognition of what probably is a universal truth.

All that sounds far more cerebral than the vibrantly physical piece that Deep River is. Even with the emphasized lines (of arms, legs, torsos) and fluidity, the dance often comes across as a jumble of rapid-fire motion (also of arms, legs, and torsos) that doesn’t have much of an opportunity to go anywhere, with one exception, until the final scene. That one exception is the dance’s opening segment, which doesn’t so much begin the trajectory as it creates a baseline and/ or comparative starting point. That segment is titled “Kaddisch.”

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a French composer perhaps best known for “Bolero.” He was raised in a Roman Catholic family, and I’m aware of no religious issues that would have provided insights into his creation, in 1914, of Deux mélodies hébraïques (two Hebrew songs) beyond the fact that the Hebrew melodies, particularly the first one, might have been part of France’s (or, more particularly, Paris’s) cultural ambiance given the area’s significant Jewish population at the time. [The Dreyfus affair – the trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans (which spawned Emile Zola’s famous letter “J’Accuse”) – rocked France from 1894-1906, when Dreyfus was finally exonerated.]

The first of the Ravel’s Deux mélodies hébraïques is titled “Kaddisch,” a traditional prayer usually (but not exclusively) considered in connection with a death (the “Mourner’s Kaddish”). [The second melody is “L’énigme éternelle” (“The Eternal Enigma”), described as a traditional Yiddish song.] As amplified by Fischer’s singing, Ravel’s composition might have been recognition of the solemnity of the prayer in all contexts, not just in connection with mourning. One way or the other the words mean the same thing: an exaltation of God, which is that prayer’s sole focus. That is, in whatever context it’s said, the Kaddish is a prayer that praises, glorifies, and sanctifies God – even, but not only, in the case of death.

(l-r) Shuaib Elhassan and Lorris Eichinger
in Alonzo King’s “Deep River”
Photo by Richard Termine

Adding emphasis to this is that I didn’t see a death in the opening segment of King’s piece (if it was there in some literal visual form, I missed it). Rather, I saw a society (the segment was performed by the entire company) searching for God or recognizing the existence of some force that controls and maybe ordains what happens – a wrathful God, perhaps, or a merciful God, and/ or everything in between. While the population appears to be suffering under some agonizing weight, seemingly helpless, one-woman upstage center reaches out as if attempting to locate or contact some external force – an early society’s effort to identify and recognize a single controlling force, perhaps borne of fear, recognition, or supplication, or all the above.

From here the piece segues to what’s labeled “Transition,” ending with “Epilogue Pas,” both danced by the same couple (Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan), and each different from the other. My recollection of the first duet, which evolves from the opening segment until the pair is left alone on stage, is somewhat frantic, maybe anguished – something of a direct successor to the prior segment but expressed on an individual level. The “Epilogue Pas,” on the other hand, displays the couple at peace with themselves.

The primary difference between the two (except for the Epilogue Pas being far more relaxed) is the emotional content that the dancers, particularly Cissoko, display having found the love they were looking for in each other: acceptance rather than being preoccupied with a search or resignation that what they’re searching for may never be found. Said slightly differently, what King appears to be highlighting, and what the two dancers in the dance’s final segment appear to have found, is that any such search should be a spiritual search for a god who either loves you or who you can love (or both), ultimately finding that love from within. It sounds sappy, but in this context it works. Sort of.

Then there’s the rest of the piece. I’ll get to that momentarily, but first I must focus on Cissoko’s superlative performance.

Adji Cissoko
in Alonzo King’s “Deep River”
Photo by Richard Termine

Cissoko is a distinctive dancer: relatively tall (although stage dimensions are imprecise), thin as a rail, the only one I noticed in pointe shoes (in the concluding pas, though she and some or all of the other women may have worn them earlier in the piece as well), with an air of serenity different from what I saw in LINES’s other extraordinary dancers. One notices her immediately.

From information on the company’s website, it appears that Cissoko is the child of a German mother and a Senegalese father who left Germany for ballet training here (at American Ballet Theater’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School on full scholarship), joined National Ballet of Canada in 2010, and, reportedly at the suggestion of Karin Kain, joined LINES in 2014, where she’s found a home.

Mostly because of Cissoko’s height and build, she reminds me a bit of Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Jillian Davis, though maybe not quite as tall and powerful, but with a softer stage demeanor (at least based on this piece and the several performances of Davis that I’ve seen) and a similar ability to present an arabesque that cuts through the stage air like a knife, and with forever legs that can separate and deliver penchées to the sky at 180 degrees instantly, as if self-propelled and stretched like pulled rubber bands.

The other eleven segments of Deep River mostly feature variations on a theme – whatever that theme is determined to be. With one exception that I’ll address below, they don’t linger in the memory the way the segments I’ve already addressed do – and although certain individual performances are noteworthy, overall it’s a sort of liquid blur.

That one exception: one duet performed by Madeline Devries and Lorris Eichinger titled “Laughing Pas.” I have no criticism of the dancers involved (and Devries stood out many times during the course of the piece), but thirty or so seconds of a pair of dancers laughing (audibly or mimicked to pre-recorded tape) made no sense in this context, except maybe to give a viewer’s thought processes a brief respite.

(l-r) Josh Francique, Lorris Eichinger and Maël Amatoul (top)
and Babatunji Johnson (right).in Alonzo King’s “Deep River”
Photo by Richard Termine.

Another segment, not one that’s strange but nevertheless seemed misplaced in context, was the celebrated, “Deep River” (identified in the program as a Traditional African-American Spiritual), the dance’s penultimate segment performed by the Company. There’s nothing at all wrong with the song or the choreography for it, but it speaks of freedom (as in freedom from slavery), and the Jordan River is a symbol of the real rivers that must be crossed to achieve it, and/or a metaphor for the rivers we all must cross. To me it’s a different type of searching than what’s emphasized in the rest of the piece. But I suppose freedom in a universal sense can be seen as freedom to find peace and love, and the hope that it will eventually be found (e.g., the lyric “that land where all is peace”).

The other segments didn’t seem particularly enlightening. They did, however, often change the pace of the activity on stage from intense to less so.

Most significantly, however, is the dance’s fourth segment, following “Transition,” (which I see now, after the fact, not as a transition between more significant segments of the dance, but as a transition – a different focus – from the opening segment; a change from the search for an all-powerful force to a search for some sort of spiritual love) and the dance’s third segment titled “Drip” (which didn’t register with me except perhaps as another form of transition from the first segment). It’s this fourth segment that fuels the conclusion I reference above.

Titled “Where is the Love?,” this song is credited to Kamalakanta Bhattacharya and has a somewhat mesmerizing melody, but in performance I was unable to comprehend the words of the song. So I researched it. Bhattacharya (1769-1821) was an Indian (Bengali) poet and yogi of great repute. This particular Hindu song, translated into English (according to the program by Paramahansa Yogananda, the late Indian-American Hindu monk, yogi and guru who is independently renowned as well) is one of his most famous. It’s also referred to as one of several songs categorized by Yohananda as a “Cosmic Chant.”

The song’s lyrics, repeated in whole or in part (by lines) with slight changes in melody during the course of the song, relates not just to “the love” in its title, but to the love of god (the “Mother” reference is to his spiritual Mother, Kali): “In this world, Mother, none can love me;/ In this world they do not know love divine. /Where is there pure loving love?/ Where is there truly loving Thee?/ There my heart longs to be.” [Translation per https://yoganandaharmony.com/where-is-there-love.]

Alonzo King LINES Ballet in “Deep River”
Photo by Richard Termine

At this same web location is Yogananda’s comment about the chant: “Yogananda writes about this Cosmic Chant in his Autobiography of a Yogi: ‘Sitting one evening in this tranquil haven, I was pouring out my heart in song. Under my fingers was the sweet-toned organ of the church, on my lips the yearning plaint of an ancient Bengali devotee [Bhattacharya] who had searched for eternal solace’”]

Well, there it is. Except for the first segment, the search visualized in different forms in Deep River is for finding a loving god or the knowledge of how best to love god, which, in sum, means a search for eternal solace. This “internal” search is far different from the search described in the dance’s opening segment (“Kaddisch”), and (if I had known its words) appears to have set the tone, the scope, and the intent, of the rest of the piece.

Except as they might illuminate that search, the remaining segments didn’t really add much, although the “Deep River” presentation was stirring. These other segments, following “Where There Is Love” (which was presented as a solo for  Cissoko) were: “Chime Aria,” “Follow the Light,” “River of Memory” (composed by Pharoah Sanders, Jim McGee, and Wieslaw Pogorselski), “Fanfare” (composed by Sanders), the aforementioned “Laughing Pas,” “Rhythm Chant,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson). Parts of Deep River are quite good; and parts are less so, and in hindsight it might have been wise to jettison some of its parts to create a clearer whole.

The LINES dancers, in addition to Cissoko, are a superb group of dancer/ athletes. I specifically recall the admirable solo work by Theo Duff-Grant in the segment titled “Follow The Light.” Though I couldn’t tell what he was supposed to be doing as his body seemed to go in all different directions at once, it was apparent that he understood even if I didn’t. Babatungi Johnson (also referred to simply as “Babatungi”) illuminated the solo “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, though here too, it wasn’t clear to me what he was attempting to portray beyond being a dynamic multi-dimensional dancer/ actor – perhaps more of the “searching” on a personal level (which I suppose would apply to Duff-Grant’s featured solo as well). Beyond these examples, the dancers who left distinct impressions were Devries, Tatum Quinonez, and Marusya Madubuko, and all were abetted admirably by the remainder of the cast: Mael Amatoul, Joshua Francisque, Ilaria Guerra, and Maya Haar.

I would be remiss not to further recognize Lisa Fischer. Her voice is other-worldly, like a one-woman choir. Whenever her vocalization was included within a particular segment, it changed the segment from being a dance to being something with a spiritual experience of its own.

Although I have issues with it, Deep River does manage, somehow, to sooth the soul. I look forward to Alonzo King LINES Ballet returning to New York in the near future.