Alonzo King, Jason Moran and Lisa Fischer On Deep River’s Lincoln Center Debut

“Once the curtain goes up… you start the beginning of this story, this sentence, that becomes this movie, this mini-movie, and, for me, time doesn’t exist anymore."

“Every beginning starts with an idea,” Alonzo King told me when we talked through our screens from across the country. “It’s like Athena appearing out of Zeus’s head. That metaphor reaffirms that it’s idea first. People talk about technique, but no. It’s idea first, and then you build techniques to follow the blueprint, so the idea is realized in a physical form.”

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Dancers perform on a dimly lit stage
Lincoln Center presents Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s ‘Deep River.’ Photo by Richard Termine

We were discussing the origins of Deep River, the evening-length work his San Francisco-based dance company is performing for their Lincoln Center debut. King is not only a visionary choreographer but also a visionary human. His presence—even via Zoom—looms large. His eyes smile, and his smile runs deep. He calls his works “’thought structures’ created by the manipulation of energies that exist in matter through laws, which govern the shapes and movement directions of everything that exists.” Our conversation was a metaphysical experience.

But King is very much of this world. He was born into a family of civil rights activists in Albany, Georgia. His father, Slater King, became president of the Albany Movement. Though his family had no relation to Martin Luther King, Jr., his father did know him (and Malcolm X too) and the two shared a jail cell more than once. “My parents were willing to die for what they believed in,” he has said. “Their commitment to truth was my tuning fork. What you speak you must live, or else do not speak it. That became my template for how to both behave and create in the world.”

At a young age, King was introduced to yoga and meditation by his father and to dance by his mother. “I loved the way she moved,” he told me. “It was different from the way I saw other people move. They would be on the beat, or on the count, and she would be through it.” He was always moving, always bouncing, making dances in the living room or garage. “Dance was always a love.”

Two dancers perform on a dimly lit stage
Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan. Photo by Richard Termine

When King saw his first ballet performance, he felt he understood it on a cellular level. “It was so familiar to me.” Soon after, he started ballet training.

King received scholarships to study at the big ballet schools in New York—American Ballet Theatre, the School of American Ballet, the Harkness Ballet. Then he picked up and brought all that classical training and experience to San Francisco where he founded his company Alonzo King LINES Ballet in 1982. Since then, he has won nearly all the awards a choreographer can win, and his work has been commissioned by major dance companies around the world including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Swedish Ballet, Ballet Frankfurt, Ballet Béjart, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Joffrey Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

I tell you all this because you need to understand the soul of the man to understand the soul of the company. They are one and the same. They are made of hope and fear, of mothers dancing in warm Southern kitchens and fathers saying, “Do what you want to do, Alonzo. This is your life.” They are a melding of Eastern and Western thought and classical forms. Of violence and nonviolence and love.

To see LINES perform is to see King’s immense influence laid bare. But to see Deep River is to see something else, too: artistic collaboration at its best.

Deep River is set to an original score by world-renowned jazz pianist, composer, Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran with vocals by Grammy Award-winning vocalist Lisa Fischer (star of the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom and celebrated backup singer for icons like The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Tina Turner and Nine Inch Nails). The score includes excerpts of spiritual music from the Black, Jewish and Indian traditions and selections by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, composer Maurice Ravel and poet James Weldon Johnson. King has said the 65-minute work is a reminder that “love is the ocean that we rose from, swim in, and will one day return to.” It has been described as “a call to keep hope, to make the lotus bloom in the mud… A piece written with the heart, a love letter to a world writhing in pain, served by exceptional dancers. A humanist piece of great beauty.”

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Though the piece debuted in May of 2022 and the company has performed it many times before, including in a recent five-week European tour, this will be their first time performing it in New York—and the first time Lisa Fischer and Jason Moran will be performing together live.

The piece’s creation began at the height of the Covid pandemic. Thanks to a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, LINES was able to form a bubble—complete with a medical team on hand, testing twice a day and food and lodging in the desert. “We worked really long, hard hours,” King said, “and had a blast.”

When I asked about the inspiration for Deep River, he said, “Let’s just say this—what does the idea of liquid mean? I think of water. I think of the body as 78 percent water. I think of water being the largest substance on planet Earth. I think of communication, musical waves. Physical waves. There’s just a plethora of ideas, and you want to relate it to what works in this movement, or what doing this gesture suggests to me.”

“Was water one of your starting points, then?” I asked, thinking I’d gained a new understanding of the piece’s title, of the irony of creating such a work in a desert.

But he just smiled kindly and said, “I think that the main starting point for me is always to give something useful. To remind humans that we’re more powerful than we think. And that we have the ability, somewhere deep within us, to overcome obstacles. And that obstacle isn’t here to defeat us, but it’s actually here to awaken what is latent inside of us and would otherwise not have been tapped.”

When I asked about the choreography, King said, “When I’m in a room and I’m working with ideas, I’m not going to put on restrictions and say, ‘Only this way!’ No, I want to look and see what is understood, what is misunderstood, what is resonating, what is posing, and then what may be something that I had never thought of that way and then there it is in that artist. What do you get? You get a vein. You get a vein that’s leading you to a motherload, because they’ve dug into something very personal and you’re seeing truth in their movement, in their interpretation.”

King’s choreography is very specific and obsessed with accuracy—of form, of meaning, of shape and energy and what has come before. It’s also very much inspired by the artists with whom he works.

“We’re all connected, all dancers, including the planets, moons, sun and stars—for me it’s all movement. Whether we’re at war, whether we’re kind to each other, whether there’s dissonance in sound, whether there’s harmony and melody, it’s all movement. And that’s the Big Bang theory! Movement and sound. That’s how it began: movement and sound.”

Do you see what I mean about metaphysics? About his enlightened presence?

Moran and Fischer—both based in New York City—offered more concrete details about the collaboration, but in no less beautiful or spiritual terms. Both artists had worked with King before, but never together.

Two dancers perform on a dimly lit stage
Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan. Photo by Richard Termine

Moran first encountered King’s work when his wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, took him to see LINES perform at The Joyce. “He was working with the Blues,” Moran told me, his Texas drawl rolling in, “at a time when I was trying to work with the Blues, and reconsider what the Blues is in the 21st Century.”

Moran loved what he saw on the stage that day. Soon after, the two met in San Francisco and began collaborating. Over almost two decades, they have created eight works together. “He’s always ready to start something, and I’m always ready to take up a challenge.” King was equally enamored with Moran’s work, and felt they had an immediate connection. Talking about their first ballet together (Refractions, 2009), he said, “I kept thinking this guy is so intuitive! He knows just what I’m talking about! And I thought, Wow. Why’d it take me so long to find him?”

Fischer, too, had wonderful things to say about Moran. “He’s a waterfall,” she said, her voice musical even when speaking, her body in constant fluid motion. “The way that he plays, it makes me feel like there’s drips and drops of warm water going down the middle of my spine… He and the piano are one. They are one… The way that he sits at the piano, it’s almost like they’re whispering to each other.”

Like Moran, Fischer first encountered King’s work at The Joyce, where she happened to sit beside Moran, though the two didn’t know each other yet. Her manager took her backstage to meet King and she immediately felt like she knew him. “He felt comfortable. He felt like family.” She remembers telling him, “Everything is just so gorgeous and beautiful! I don’t know what I could bring to the table.” He told her to trust herself because he trusted her. He told her he could see it already. She did, and this is their third project together. King calls her “a masterpiece”, noting that she has “a brilliant mind” and “a childlike quality—not childish, but childlike. It is kind of ever-new… For me, thought is everything. The way you think is the way you behave. And behavior is movement. It’s how you move around in the world. And so, the way she moves around in the world is beautiful.”

For Moran and Fischer, their starting point was clear: spirituals, close to both of their hearts. “Any time anyone performs a spiritual,” Moran explained, “they have to be aware that it’s not simply them that they’re making the song for. We’re making it for the company, but we’re also making it for the ancestors, too. I feel very tender about that.” King would send them a song he liked, and Moran would riff on it, and Fischer would play with it, and then they’d send it back to King, and then he’d send over a video of his dancers moving to it. They went back and forth like that, over and over again. Fischer described the process as inspiring and playful, “almost like having a bunch of kids looking at this blank canvas and going ‘hey, I’m gonna try this!’ Splat!”

Dancers perform on a dimly lit stage
Dancers in Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s ‘Deep River.’ Photo by Richard Termine

For both Moran and Fischer, the experience of working with King and LINES has affected how they think about music. Moran claims it has made him think more deeply about how music and movement affect each other and has also taught him how to play a slower ballad. “How to really take time between phrases, and how to let phrases travel across the band or across the stage.” He talks about giving the audience “a place to sit back and fall in.” Letting the music “catch the listener.” Fischer talks about “cradling” the artists on stage so that they “can fly and do their thing.” She tries “to be there, kind of like a piece of silk, just kind of floating around, but not in the way.”

While Fischer has four decades of experience performing with singers, she was initially intimidated to perform with dancers. But then she realized that it’s not so different from being a backup singer. “Their movement is the melody,” she explained. “I’m watching their bodies sing, basically, and I’m singing in reaction, or preparation, for their movement.” The movement, for her, is the lead singer. “And the emotions that the dancers are feeling when they’re physically singing, to me, is what needs to be cradled.” And now she loves it. “To be actually on stage while they’re doing this, and actually feeling the wind of their movement, is just overwhelming. It makes me feel like I’m dancing, but I’m not.”

When I asked all three creators how they were feeling about Deep River’s Lincoln Center debut, King was cautious (“It’s exciting! But I’m the kind of parent who keeps an even keel, if you know what I mean. I want the job done well, and I want it to be radiant wherever we are.”) and Moran was humble (“I have a lot of practicing to do!”) but Fischer was elated: “Once the curtain goes up…you start the beginning of this story, this sentence, that becomes this movie, this mini-movie, and, for me, time doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just breath… Every time I perform it, it’s very healing for me. What I’m hoping for is that the audience gets to feel that as well.”

Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s Deep River is at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Rose Theater on February 23 and 24 at 7:30 pm. 

Alonzo King, Jason Moran and Lisa Fischer On Deep River’s Lincoln Center Debut