It’s odd to think that my only recent contact with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has been through their frequent emails. I’ve never entered their infamous Dream House Raffle (for which tickets are $150.00 and “winning” is not all it seems), but I have pondered what events would be COVID-safe enough to brave seeing. I can now report that YBCA’s COVID check is akin to that of the SF Ballet (glance-and-hand-wave vax check, clientele playing fast ‘n loose with masks, though some empty seating that may have been by policy or just attendance). That seems appropriate, since I was there to see a different ballet company.
I feel a personal shame that “Deep River” (through Sat/22) was the first show I’ve ever seen by the legendary Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The world premiere show is, after all, the inaugural production of the company’s 40th season. As a Black man, SF native, performing artist, and art critic, I can’t believe it’s taken 40 years and a pandemic (which has not ended) for me to finally find the time to see one of the country’s most distinctive Black arts companies. Having said that, there are worse shows one could have as their first.
“Deep River” is a collaboration among director-choreographer King, pianist-composer Jason Moran, and vocalist Lisa Fischer (with additional music by jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel, and James Weldon Johnson). Fischer appears and disappears on the spartan stage alongside the company. We see her wielding two mics at once, which—along with sound design by Philip Perkins—gives her voice an ethereal, echo-like quality that somehow just adds to the resonating bass of her voice. Think of a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Kate Bush.
One is almost tempted to describe Fischer as the narrator, but the “story” of “Deep River” (if there is one) is hard to unravel, and the very nature of Fischer’s performance makes it often hard to tell when she’s reciting lyrics or merely vocalizing. It makes for a pleasant surprise at one point when you realize she’s singing classic hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Besides, ballet doesn’t need a proper story, just a means to showcase the well-honed instrument of the human body. Yet, Deep River seems to take on an almost evolutionary quality, showing the troupe both contrasting against and moving in sync to Moran’s score (which ranges from a full orchestra to a single piano). The rare time the dancers speak is near the beginning, chanting “Yes, yes… No, no…” For the rest, they move in manners reminiscent of wild animals, small children, or even unwieldy forces of nature.
And all of it is captivating. Dressed in deep earth tones by Robert Rosenwasser, which often sees the shirtless male-presenting dancers in skirts and the female-presenting ones in masculine tank tops, the troupe exists as creatures outside of time as we know it, but somehow connected to it all the same. When a disappeared Fischer returns to accompany the dancers with torch song lyrics like “Where my soul longs to be,” it’s as if she’s seeing her own passions reflected in these wild creatures as a means of understanding what they are within herself.
They break off into groups or move in tandem in a way that brings up questions we tend to ask about the freedom of individuality versus the security of the tribe. But as abstract as the concept is, Fischer’s gospel delivery and choice of songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” give work a specificity that actually makes it more universal.
In a world of whitewashed narratives and BIPoC demonization, “Deep River” is the sort of work that reassures a Black audience as to their importance in the turning of this chaotic world. What’s more, the white audience members in attendance seemed to be moved by it as well. With a thrillingly minimalist design and an eclectic multi-ethnic troupe—many of whom move to their own unique rhythm, even in synchronized numbers—I’m glad such a strong show was my first with LINES. It certainly won’t be my last.
DEEP RIVER runs through May 22 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF. Tickets and info here.