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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

to know.’"

"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

dance."

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

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. $27 & $30. Wednesday, May 21, 8 p.m.


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