Alonzo King’s ‘Deep River’ to Premiere at Rose Theater

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The choreographer Alonzo King sees ballet differently. A dance is never just a dance. It’s a kind of faith, and the training necessary for it — day in and day out — is a way to keep that faith alive. His ballets have a way of sailing through sensations, of calming the nervous system, of realigning the body and mind.

“Deep River,” which will have its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater beginning Feb. 22, is named after the spiritual, which is part of its score, and is rooted in ideas about courage and hope. It’s about a belief that King has: Within every person, a river flows.

“You can’t live a full life without having gotten in contact with the river that is inside of you,” he said in a video interview from San Francisco, where he lives and where his company, Lines Ballet, is based. “And it’s a knowing, it’s a knowledge. It’s your internal world. You want to tap into the knowledge that is waiting inside of you.”

That can seem like a lot to put into a dance. But “Deep River” is driven by more than choreographic invention. When he was speaking to the composer Jason Moran about the score for “Deep River,” King told him that it needed to be deeply soulful and heartbreaking. “I want it to get past intellect and touch people’s hearts,” King said. “To wake them up.”

King sees behavior as movement, or a dance: “It begins in thought,” he said. “Thought leads to behavior and behavior is movement. How do you move in the world? How do you see and treat other people? That’s it. And so if we look at the lives of great folks that we admire, those are dances. You look at the life of Harriet Tubman. That’s an incredible dance.”

One quality present in King’s choreography, which can be rapturous one moment and grounded the next, is elongation. His dancers, agile and lean, ripple as they seem to stretch their bodies past their skin. They’re never stuck in positions; movement flows through them. And in “Deep River,” the music has a way of swimming alongside them, too, especially the voice of Lisa Fischer, a transcendent singer who appears onstage with the dancers. (A longtime performer with the Rolling Stones, Fischer is featured in “20 Feet from Stardom,” the Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers.)

In “Deep River,” King’s idea of a pas de deux seems to expand beyond just two bodies; Fischer feels that, too. “If I’m doing a hand movement that is reacting to the dancers’ hand movements, it’s almost as though I can see the energy between the space,” she said, referring to the air between those hands. “It’s not just reaching without a purpose. But for me, the purpose is throwing energy and exchanging the energy.”

At times in “Deep River,” Fischer touches the dancers — a shoulder, the back of neck. “It’s like you feel their sweat, you feel all these years of preparation for that moment,” she said. “I keep that in mind, because everything that they are is in that moment. They’re breathing life into it and I get to share it.”

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The dancer Babatunji said that Fischer — both her singing and presence — “unlocks a latent ability for us to give more.” Adji Cissoko, a dancer who performs a solo with Fischer, said, “It’s the craziest experience because she becomes me, and I become her, and it is as if her voice is coming through my body.”

Moran, who works often with King — Moran said he has five albums worth of music from their collaborations — first started the process for this ballet by recording with Fischer. They began with spirituals, including “Deep River” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“The way Alonzo and I generally work is he puts out his open call into my brain,” Moran said, “and then I try to flood him with things I think he might like.”

Moran said he knew that Fischer would help to carry the level of soul that King was after: “She has such an incredible instrument, whether she’s singing with text or with syllables.” Moran said. “She knows how to pull your soul out of your body and let you kind of shout in joy or cower and mourn.”

Onstage, their collaborations create a rare back and forth in which both dance and music seem radiantly present. King’s enthralling “Single Eye,” created for American Ballet Theater in 2022, featured music by Moran; together they created a mingling of ballet and the natural world that was eerily beautiful. “One of the first things I noticed years ago when we started working together was just how much air he loves in music,” Moran said. “New Yorkers want to make things dense. In San Francisco, he really appreciates air.”

Moran has changed his own approach because of it. “I think with Alonzo, he has been able to let me ease up off the gas and really send pieces that have more line and more shape and allow the mind to linger,” he said. “Because the dancers will do the rest of the work. The music does not need to do everything.”

And the movement is potent on many levels. “Deep River” dates back to the days when, because of the pandemic, dancers weren’t allowed to touch. The work began during a bubble residency with dancers quarantining together. “Every gesture, every hand grip, every movement meant so much more,” said Cissoko said. “I think that’s why it still feels like such a precious piece.”

In a pas de deux she dances with Shuaib Elhassan, the first thing they do is touch hands. “That still is the most special thing to me — how we touch hands” she said. “It’s different every time, but it’s going back to that moment of when that was so vulnerable and true and appreciated. It’s like we become one.”

Working with King, the Lines dancers know that they are not just performing steps — though the steps are there, and rigorous at that. King, Babatunji said, encourages them to think of “every movement as a prayer, or a declaration of, ‘I want to be a better person,’ ‘I want to spread love,’ ‘I want to affect others in a positive way.’” Bringing that to the stage, he added, “there’s no way that we cannot have a ripple effect.”

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That prospect of dance having a life and an urgency beyond an arrangement of steps has fueled King’s path as a dancer and a choreographer. He grew up in Georgia and in California; his parents and stepmother were all involved in the Civil Rights movement.

King’s early memories of dancing were more typical: He danced with his mother. “I adored it,” King said. “It was a form of intimacy. And I also loved the way she moved. She moved through the music instead of on top of it.”

His ballet training took him to many academies, including at American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey, Harkness and the School of American Ballet, where he studied with important teachers, including Stanley Williams, Richard Rapp and the celebrated ballerina Alexandra Danilova, who, he said “was a trip.”

Alvin Ailey asked King to join his company. “I went and I rehearsed for about two weeks and I thought, ‘I just want to get back to ballet,’” he said. “Isn’t that funny? I was hungry for it, and I really loved it.”

He was offered other dancing jobs that he didn’t take: “I had a very stubborn, independent mind about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” he said. “I just saw things really differently.”

After leaving New York, he went to Santa Barbara, where he had grown up, and began to choreograph. “And then I thought, I’m going to go to San Francisco because there’s a real dance community there, and it’ll be richer in terms of possibilities,” he said. “And so I did.”

That was in 1981; Lines had its first performance the next year. What would he have been if not a choreographer? “I like that question,” he said. “But I think, to be really plain and honest with you, I think everyone is a choreographer. You know, we’re shaping our lives. We’re moving in our time frame with an expiration date and making choices or following habits that could be hurting us, or creating new ones that could help us.”

If movement is the principal expression of life, he believes that the greatest art is the art of living. “There’s a beautiful thing I was reading from Yogananda” — that is, Paramahansa Yogananda, the famous yogi — “who was saying when you fall down, the ground that you fell down on is the same thing that you’re going to use to help you get back up. Isn’t that beautiful? I guess my point is there’s always a way.”

With “Deep River,” which King described as “about, as usual, humanity, consolation,” he shows a certain faith in the world, as broken as it is. “No matter how it feels or appears, we have the ability — if we are courageous — to overcome obstacles,” he said. “That’s part of a human being.”

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