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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 14, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Brooklyn Dreamer/Dance Maker
Dancer and choreographer Ronald K. Brown calls one
aspect of his modern dance theater "kinetic storytelling."
For those who watch Brown and his New York company Evidence make its
McCarter Theater debut next week with Brown’s dance "Walking Out
the Dark," "kinetic conversation" is a term that is more
likely to come to mind.
"Walking Out the Dark," a big work for only four dancers,
opens with a pair of dancers, isolated at center stage, standing face
to face, engaged in a heart-wrenching dynamic dialogue of affection,
need, and pain, expressed exclusively through expressive passages
of contemporary fusion movement. Performed to the dirge-like rhythms
and vocals of composer Philip Hamilton, individuals and couples observe
each dancer’s movement statement with solemn concentration, joining
the audience in the transcendent act of bearing witness.
Ronald K. Brown and Evidence will be at McCarter Wednesday, May 21,
at 8 p.m. In addition to excerpts from Brown’s evening-length "Walking
Out the Dark," set to jazz and world music by Hamilton and the
vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, the program features "High
Life" to music by Nigerian composer Fela Kuti, and "Upside
Down" to music by Fela Kuti and Malian vocalist Oumou Sangare.
Although this is Brown’s dance debut here, he is no stranger to Princeton
or McCarter Theater. Last fall he choreographed Regina Taylor’s commissioned
play, "Crowns." Movement was integral to the staging of vignettes
about Southern African-American women and their hats (or "crowns").
And audiences may remember how the play’s various imaginary characters,
both young and old, revealed their personalities, background, and
artistic talents in dance.
Brown, 35, is already a veteran of the modern dance scene. Raised
in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, he founded his dance
company, Evidence, in 1985 when he was just 19. His fusion of traditional
American modern dance with hip-hop and contemporary West African club
dance has thrilled audiences and critics with high-energy vernacular
dances that he dedicates to communication and community. His audience-pleasing
dances, often to the poly-rhythms of African drummers, also manage
to address far-reaching issues of race, class, gender, and assimilation
in the modern world.
In a telephone interview from a teaching residency in
Ohio, Brown exudes pleasure both in his profession and in the success
he has achieved because dancing is what he always wanted to do. He
reports that he was only in second grade when he showed up at school
for Black Heritage Month celebration dressed as Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell
is the former New York City Ballet star and George Balanchine protege
who went on to found the Dance Theater of Harlem.
"I wore black tights and a white T-shirt to school under my clothes
and took a pair of black ballet slippers with me," he says. Before
he was 10, Brown had already seen performances by Mitchell’s Dance
Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and they
made a strong impression.
"Remember back then we had arts and education," he continues.
"There were school trips, a bunch of kids packing into a yellow
school bus and going into the theater. I was so impressed I came home
and made up a dance to a poem by Mickey Giovanni, `My Father’s House,’
an old spiritual. My dance was inspired by Alvin Ailey’s `Revelations.’
I came home and told myself, You can dance about church."
Since that time Brown has created two commissioned works for the Alvin
Ailey company, "Grace" and "Serving Nia," connecting
him directly to the tradition of black dance in America. His aims
for his own work are the same ones he recognized in "Revelations."
"It feels good to give yourself over to the dance, to just let
your spirit go on that journey, being connected to the divine,"
he told one interviewer.
This spiritual strain is key to the flowering of African-American
dance in America. It dates back to 1937 when Katherine Dunham, a dancer
who had trained as an anthropologist, pursued field research on Afro-Caribbean
dance in Haiti and Martinique, incorporated it into her choreography,
and brought it to the American concert stage. In the 1940s another
anthropologist dancer, Pearl Primus, did fieldwork in West Africa,
and incorporated traditional ritual dances in her concert work and
her long career as a teacher.
Brown’s study of dance did not begin "officially" until age
15. "Before then I had a lot of dance experiences and creative
movement teaching but no conventional technical training," he
says. Even without training, he received plenty of encouragement at
home. He credits his mother with the support to realize his dream.
Brown is the oldest of four siblings, all of whom are creative in
different ways. "My father is a mechanic who tried to get me interested
in what makes things work, and I would have like that, but I just
never could get my head around it." His mother, who died seven
years ago (in 1996), was also an artist, a painter and a sculptor
who carved in wood. "I remember growing up, that my mother was
creative in this way, and I asked myself, `What is my thing?’"
Now he has a sister who is an illustrator, a younger brother who works
in administration, but also writes lyrics to songs, and a "baby
sister" in college who writes and is getting ready to study acting.
"I think each of us wants the other person to have their own thing."
"Because all of the dance experiences I had, my mother was the
one leading me to it," he says. "I was dancing around the
house, making up dances, and having the family watch them." However,
the academic goals he had set for himself, with an eye to a possible
career as a writer or a journalist, prevented him placing too much
emphasis on dance.
"I had to do well in school, I had to do 95 or better, but in
my neighborhood it was not cool to like school. So it was too difficult
for me to add dance into that equation. But eventually I had the courage
in high school at 15 to say, `I want to dance and people will want
"Going to church was always part of the life. My great uncle founded
a Pentecostal church. And although at some point my grandmother decided
we should go to another church, it was another Pentecostal, in a storefront
in Brooklyn. Them my oldest uncle, he was a Black Muslim, so I was
always getting instructions in terms of how you were supposed to converse
with God on a daily basis," he says with a laugh.
Brown says these same elements made him curious about
other religions and other ways of conversing with the divine. "That
upbringing shaped my sensibility. And then I guess I feel like each
choreographer’s career seems to be about one central idea or sensibility,"
he says. "Now I’m beginning to understand that about my work.
How the community is dealing together, and how all of these are spiritual
ideals. All of this has to do with getting to God or being God-like
and living with a sense of responsibility. Each dance hopefully is
a story that’s connected to this larger picture."
"The fact is I’m an African-American man and I’ve decided to have
who I am and what has gone into me be a part of what I create. It
has to be present in what I am giving to you. And I see that as part
of the American landscape."
"At first it was poets and activists who inspired me and pushed
me along," he says. "Among dancers and choreographers, it
was Eleo Pomare, his audacity, deliberately taking on the social conversation
in dance." Pomare is a choreographer and social activist who,
beginning in the 1960s, brought the harsh realities of "real life"
in the black ghetto onto the concert stage. Then there was the influence
of Pearl Primus who he met in the early 1990, but event then —
I didn’t understand then how connected I was to her. Now I feel like
I’m directly behind her, taking on social considerations and that
sense of anthropology in dance."
Brown says that at first traditional African rhythms or dance technique
were "tucked away" in his choreography. "It was basically
contemporary dance, a boy from Brooklyn who loved to dance." But
then "people were calling me out, asking me where the influences
were." He began to turn serious attention to traditional and modern
African movement in 1992 when he began teaching at a New York school
that offered instruction in African dance across the whole diaspora.
The faculty included Marlies Yearby, founder of Movin’ Spirits Dance
Theater, and Nia Love, a choreographer who has taught at the University
of Dakar in Senegal.
"In 1994 I met a choreographer from the Cote d’Ivoire who was
struck that I was trying to make dance speak," he recalls, "in
the same way that she was trying to take traditional dance and make
statements with it." This led to an invitation to study and teach
in Ivory Coast in West Africa in 1995.
In Africa, one of the things that most struck Brown was the social
dance he found there. "Their dance is related to traditional dance
but it’s related to hip-hop as well. They’re watching the same videotapes
as we are," he says. "All of a sudden I understood that I
was on a continuum, on what could be seen as contemporary African
Brown spent time in Cote d’Ivoire throughout the 1990s, traveling
there for four to six weeks at a time, until 1998, when the political
situation made it too dangerous. This year he will go to Burkino Faso,
a small West African country not far from Cote d’Ivoire, where his
friend is working to establish a dance company.
"Sabar is the Senegalese dance form that has had the greatest
influence on my work," Brown explains. "Senegalese dance was
the first traditional form I studied on an intensive basis. I was
drawn to Sabar because it’s a contemporary form that you would do
at a club or a party, so I think my urban, sensual side was drawn
to it. It’s only now I’m realizing how much Cuban, Congolese, and
Guinean dance makes sense to my body. It seems connected to me on
a deeper level."
Brown describes "Walking Out the Dark" (a 55-minute three-part
work of which he will show 20 minutes, "the heart of the piece"
at McCarter), as "the conversations between the siblings and the
lovers, announcing and confessing the love they have for one another."
"My interest is in the global community, but we have to start
at home," he says. "For me it’s starting as close as my siblings,
the way we come to each other, with love. Nowadays we all have cell
phones and E-mail that we use as a way to be connected. But I’m interested
in connecting on a visceral level — on the level of `I see you,
I feel you.’"
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-258-2787. $27 & $30. Wednesday, May 21, 8 p.m.
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