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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, June 21, 2024

Emotions run high in ‘Deep River’

Alonzo King’s latest production packs a powerful punch.

Alonzo King LINES _ Courtesy RJ Muna.jpg

A dancer performing in “Deep River” is pictured.

Alonzo King LINES Ballet performed “Deep River” on March 8 and 9 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. “Deep River” was created during the pandemic by the San Francisco-based ballet company, and was choreographed and rehearsed in outdoor, often remote spaces. A troupe of 12 dancers came on and off stage throughout a nonstop, 64-minute performance. Prevailing themes in the show include the importance of hope and the depth of love, but it is also wonderfully abstract and very open to interpretation.

Very little of the performance resembles a classical ballet experience. Anyone expecting tutus and organized movement would’ve been disappointed with “Deep River.” Only about three of the dancers were en pointe during the performance, and the movements were modern and quick, though often taking inspiration from classical ballet styles. For all intents and purposes, the dance was more contemporary and jazz-focused than it was ballet, though LINES Ballet does take the best, most emotional parts of ballet and translate them into their unique style.

The performance was visceral and heavy. You could often hear the dancers breathing and grunting more than you could hear their dance shoes. At times it felt primal as though the dancers were animals in a savanna and not members of an ensemble. As they split up, the individual solos and pas de deux developed a decidedly less animalistic environment. It was a bit difficult to keep track of all of the dancers on stage because many of them were employing different techniques and diverse choreography. Unlike classical ballet, there wasn’t symmetry from dancer to dancer — there was a chaos that was enjoyable as well as overwhelming.

Where the performance really shined was through its pas de deux. An opening set featured one dancer carrying another across the stage, looking not unlike a gender-swapped version of Michelangelo’s “Pietà.” Another, more unsettling pas de deux featured maniacal laughter. Some of the pas de deux paired up a male and female dancer and utilized more classical variations. Other pas de deux, though, paired up dancers of the same gender and featured more mismatched movements. Two dancers would perform side by side to very different choreography, creating an interesting and often tension-filled dichotomy.

A variety of musical offerings accompanied the dancers. Original music by Jason Moran and Lisa Fischer often played in the background alongside recognizable songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Deep River. Many songs were drawn from Black, Jewish and Indian traditions, lending themselves to a deeply spiritual, soulful performance; in fact, the hour-long nature of the show certainly resembled that of a church service. Sounds varied from piano melodies and windchimes to more grating, screeching sounds. The background often transitioned alongside the sound, with a black background accompanying the more dense scenes and a linen-colored background backing the more gentle, jazzy sections. A few scenes included a bluer tone paired with sounds that almost created an underwater environment as though the dancers were swimming in the “Deep River” referenced in the title of the show.

Unlike some previous performances of “Deep River,” live music was not provided by Fischer onstage. Live music adds a wonderful dimension to the show, and it would’ve both softened and complemented the dancing. Because the performance was so visceral and sensory, the lack of live music made it feel almost too contemporary. If this performance was missing anything, it was onstage vocals that would’ve tied the atmosphere of total performance together.

The costumes were minimal yet compelling. Many of the dancers wore taupe dresses at the beginning of the performance, and ultimately replaced them with lacy tops and thin brown shorts. The male dancers wore longer skirts at the beginning of the performance, though they changed into billowy shorts partway through the show as well. Only one dancer dared to wear a bright orange skirt during a section in the middle of the show while the rest of the ensemble remained in neutral tones. They matched well with the aesthetic of the show, refusing to distract from the dancing itself. Similarly, the hair of each performer was unique, with some opting for French twists and others opting out of an updo.

In total, “Deep River” was moving and profound. The themes were indeed abstract, but the dancing created an overarching, very applicable moral arc. The bare, minimalistic production let the dancing itself be the star of the show, and star it was. LINES Ballet’s ever-evolving style and King’s artistic vision are a sight to behold, and the performance represents a promising and exciting future for ballet and for contemporary dance. Although live music would have been a nice addition to the show, the performance is adequately challenging and wholly moving. As the printed program reads, “‘Deep River’ is a call to be fanatically positive regardless of circumstance, to bloom the lotus in the muck, and to look at one another as a family of souls.”

Summary Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s “Deep River” proves moving and exciting. Though live music would’ve rounded out its shows at the Cutler Majestic, King’s effortlessly modern ballet style makes for a wonderful performance.
4 Stars
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