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Alonzo King's Lines Ballet presents “The Propelled Heart”

BrettConway Adji CissokoLisa Fischer


Top o’ the Line

I’ve often attended and reviewed Alonso King’s Lines Ballet over the past ten years. Without a doubt they are one of my favorite companies. They combine thrilling dancers with imaginative choreography and beautiful staging. And all of that is placed in exotic collaboration with other radically different dancers, artists and musicians: Shaolin martial artists, tabla virtuosi, Rain Forest dancers, jazz greats.

This past weekend Lines Ballet opened their fall season in a program that seemed the culmination of a history of work and development. The company’s collaboration with singer Lisa Fischer and musician JC Maillard was, in short, spellbinding. Don’t mistake the word for promotional pablum. 

Blessed with an extraordinary vocal range that is seated deep in chest and lofts effortlessly into a strikingly warm and pure upper register, Fisher has worked as a background singer since the early ’80s, in collaboration with a formidable list of popular singers from Tina Turner to Beyonce, and exchanged notes with more edgy musicians like Lou Reed and Bobby McFerrin. She is currently on tour with The Rolling Stones, with whom she has worked since the 1989.

In 1991 she debuted her solo album So Intense, with the Grammy-winning hit single “How can I Ease the Pain”.

None of this conveys the voice.

Nor does it convey the ease with which she can flawlessly tonally move from style to style, quintessentially professional.

All of which synced up with Alonso King’s brilliant dancers moving through space, both singer and dancers grooving together in contrapuntal affiliation. Fischer is on stage with the dancers. She moves, and they sing. But their exchange of mediums is imbued with each other’s talent. No false steps here, no sour notes.

Maillard provides sonic cohesion. Robert Rossenwasser and Axel Morgenthaler the exquisite visual environment. King is inspired in his choreography.

The work opens with four female dancers sitting on the floor, backs to the audience, pale under bright stage lights. One at a time they rise and dance.

When the singer walks on stage she is clothed in floor-length browns, a layered tunic or toga. She is very different from the dancers – large-sized and graceful, she becomes the magnetic north to their wandering, always drawing their action and the audience’s eye.

The singing starts with vocalizing, the dancers moving into her silences. She rubs her hands together. A cluster of male dancers cries out – is it pain? Is it longing? The music from the pit wraps around singer and dancers. A cluster of female dancers flows into the upstage space. They huddle: they too cry out, but with their higher voices they sound like birds. Whistles float up from the sound system. Vocal slides bring the sounds back down to earth, where the dancers attempt flight. Their long lean muscular bodies pace through impossible gestures.

Is there anything more beautiful than the body glistening from sweat and effort?

The vocalese moves on to words – phrases on the vulnerability of the physical world. “If I lose my eyes,” she sings, “I would not be blind, but see in a different way.” And that is what this exchange of voice and body provides: seeing in a different way. Everyone here is watching, singing, dancing – in a different way.

The second half begins with the dancers on the floor, but they are not there long. Voice and music call them to action. The singer takes over the role of the earth. She is substance and gravity: “Release me. Release yourself.” A chorus of sound comes from the dancers offstage.

There is ululation and speech. There is stretch and extension, run and fall.

Maillard is fundamental, down in the darkness of the pit, providing the universe for the spinning planets of exquisitely trained bodies and the vocal music of the spheres. All propelled. All emanating from the beating heart.


– Jaime Robles


Alonso King’s Lines Ballet production of The Propelled Heart continues at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco until November 15. Tickets and information can be found at


Photo: Brett Conway, Adji Cissoko and Lisa Fischer in Alonzo King's “The Propelled Heart”. Photo by Quinn B. Wharton



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