By Erin McKay
In celebration of LINES Ballet’s 40th Anniversary, we look back at the legacy of Alonzo King’s frequently commissioned work, Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Over twenty years ago, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Judith Jamison, invited Alonzo to choreograph for the company with one request in mind: have the dancers move differently. The work did that, and then some, deemed as “spectacular in its visual and kinetic impact” by The New York Times.
Since its 2001 premiere, Following the Subtle Current Upstream has been performed by LINES Ballet (2006), Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (2011), and Rambert Dance Company (2022). The “beautifully conceived choreography” (New York Post) that encouraged Ailey artists to stretch past their comfort continues to breathe new life into dancers two decades later.
“He is an incredible mind,” former Hubbard Street dancer Kellie Epperheimer told the Rogue Ballerina. “He has these ideas and is really interested in having the dancers explore the work of what he gives. There’s a lot of freedom… He’s specific with certain things, but how you interpret that is very free, which allows the dancer to put in their personality.” The goal is not for the artists to look the same as those that did the work before them; the goal is to tap into something greater, to say something in only the way that they could say it.
The question at the center of Following the Subtle Current Upstream is how do we return to joy? “One thing we all have in common,” asserts Alonzo, “is the desire for permanent joy. All of our choices, poor or wise, are based on the achievement of that one goal. It has been proven time and again that external acquisitions cannot guarantee that goal. All desires achieved bring happiness, but only temporary happiness. It is an inward journey back to ourselves alone that brings permanent happiness.” This journey is far from easy; often, it is a hard swim upstream. “The salmon struggles on its journey back to where it was spawned,” shares Alonzo. “There is the subtle inner instinct that pulls it back home. For humans, that call is intuition.”
Alonzo’s instinct to return home influenced his music selection for the piece. Along with music by Indian tabla master and frequent LINES collaborator Zakir Hussain and composer Miguel Frasconi, the voice of South African singer Miriam Makeba carries dancers through Following the Subtle Current Upstream. “I have long held admiration for the work of Miriam Makeba,” shares Alonzo. ”At 17, I created my first work to her music at Santa Barbara High School of the Performing Arts. When I received the commission from Ailey, I knew that I had to use Makeba.”
Then things got interesting in the LA airport. Returning home from setting work on the Hong Kong Ballet, Alonzo found himself on the same flight back to San Francisco as Makeba. “I was thrilled,” Alonzo reminisced, “We spoke at length. Her beautifully shaped face shone with kindness and wisdom; tinged by weariness from earthly trials, it was a map of her life. Her soft resonant voice rose from deep within and rang with compassion. I communicated that I was a choreographer and that her music was the first that I had ever choreographed. She smiled with such graciousness and invited me to her concert in Berkeley, and asked me to come backstage afterwards so that we could continue talking.”
An intuitive sense of returning home also led to the recent revival of Alonzo’s work on Rambert Dance Company. A seven-year principal dancer with Alvin Ailey, Benoit Swan Pouffer (artistic director of Rambert) was in King’s original cast for Following the Subtle Current Upstream. He opened the piece on stage with fellow artists Mr. Gerodias and Kevin E. Boseman in what The New York Times called “an astonishingly muscular trio in linked formation that scatters with centrifugal force.” Inspired and still struck by Alonzo, Pouffer invited him and Meredith Webster to London to stage the work on Rambert for their 2022 May/June tour.
Following the Subtle Current Upstream ran on a mixed bill across Europe from May 13-June 1 and was celebrated as a “muscular, percussive joy” by The Guardian. The artists were named “superb” in the “elegance and sophistication of [King’s] choreography”. Pouffer and the Rambert dancers now share the experience of embodying Alonzo’s work, and with it, the wonderings of returning home, eternal joy, and excavating more.
- Alonzo King LINES Ballet Spring Season 2006 Program Book
- “Following the Subtle Current Upstream”, alvinailey.org
- “Interview: Dance legend Alonzo King: ‘People think of love as a sentiment but it’s a force’”, The Guardian
- “On stage tour: May 2022”, rambert.org.uk
- “Repertoire”, hubbardstreetdance.com
- Banner Photography: Rambert Dance Company | Dancers: Max Day, Guillaume Queau, and Jonathan Wade performing in Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream | © Camilla Greenwell
- Videos of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Alonzo King LINES Ballet edited by Jamie Lyons