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Steve Sucato   |  March 15, 2023

LINES Ballet’s Deep River Plumbs the Depths of Humanity’s Relationship with Darkness and Light [REVIEW]

Alonzo King LINES Ballet – Deep River
Mimi Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
Cleveland, Ohio
March 11, 2023

By Steve Sucato

Physical beauty intertwined with the spiritual in Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s Deep River this past Saturday night at the Mimi Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square.

Choreographed by company Artistic Director Alonzo King in 2022 for the San Francisco-based contemporary dance company’s 40th anniversary season, Deep River was quintessential King in its characteristic elongated-limbed movement emanating from the company’s ten dancers’ bodies like the morning stretch of a cat. The evening-length work that was delivered without intermission, while non-narrative, was illustrative in its mood and emotion reflecting darkness and light and what King referred to as the work’s “call to be fanatically positive regardless of circumstance.”

Presented by DANCECleveland and Tri-C Performing Arts, Deep River was performed to original music by jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran featuring Grammy Award-winning vocalist Lisa Fischer along with Black and Jewish spiritual music and selections by Pharoah Sanders and Maurice Ravel.

On a darkened bare stage framed by black curtains with overhead lighting instruments in view, LINES Ballet’s dancers spread out over the stage and broke into spurts of energetic movement in silence. Bodies spun, legs rocketed skyward, and hands and arms were sent out into the space around each dancer in lines of elegant muscularity.

Last in Cleveland in 2013, the company has maintained its innate power to dazzle viewers. Fit and technically gifted, LINES Ballet’s dancers appeared tailormade for King’s choreography. None more so than dancer Adji Cissoko, whose fabulously long limbs, facility as a dancer, and magnetic stage presence shone throughout the work. She was the north star, shining brightest among the constellation of heavenly bodies onstage.

LINES Ballet dancer Adji Cissoko. Photo by RJ Muna.

Deep River alternated between sections of dimly lit, dark emotional passages and those brightly lit with a sense of hopefulness and vibrant and energetic movement. Within those, virtuosic solos, graceful, intertwined pas de deux, and gesture-laden unison group dancing took place. In one such group sequence, five dancers sat side-by-side on the stage and butt-scooted forward, heads to one side while their hands and arms conducted a series of angular gestures in front of them. This dance phrase repeated two more times before the dancers stood to form a striking tableau.

In another section reflecting on the recurrent nature of life, a quartet of male dancers engaged with Cissoko in another repetitive dance phrase as three of the men launched her several times through the air into a desperate embrace with dancer Babatunji Johnson.

LINES Ballet dancer Madeline DeVries. Photo by RJ Muna.

Like a constant blooming of flowers, King filled the work with beautiful dance sequences as throughout the work each of the uber-talented company dancers took turns in the spotlight. Memorable were Johnson in a gymnastic and moving solo to black national anthem hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” dancer James Gowan in a thrilling solo brimming with jumps and body contortions, an inspiring group line dance to the work’s title track the African-American spiritual “Deep River,” and a closing twisting and turning pas de deux between Cissoko and dancer Shuaib Elhassan that radiated feelings of love.

A big picture musing on humanity’s back-and-forth with its light and dark natures and its penchant for inflicting suffering as well as its profound desire for healing, Deep River was a dance work that had it all—finely-crafted choreography, phenomenal dancing, and spiritual and emotional substance and depth.


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