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Everybody on stage: Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.

Preaching With the Feet
By Mae G. Banner

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence

The Egg, June 30

What goes around comes around. Ronald K. Brown, Brooklyn born and American trained, has traveled to Senegal and the Ivory Coast seeking the source of movement for his choreography. There, in the dance clubs, he found exuberant Afro-pop shimmying and strutting to the blatting saxes of North American jazz.

So, Upside Down (1998) the unabashedly traditional African dance that concluded Brown’s program last Friday at the Egg, was also the most contemporary in spirit. The seven dancers of Evidence, including Brown, let loose in pure party mode. Dancers would fly in from the wings, torsos gyrating, arms and legs swinging freely from their powerful centers.

All the bold African moves were in play: long, low leaps, two-footed jumps, turns with a bent knee. It was home, but the double home of the diaspora circling back to where it began and bringing with it contemporary treasures.

In all his work, Brown draws from African and Afro-Cuban traditions, layered with postures and gestures from modern dance. But, except for the uninhibited Upside Down, his dances can sink under the weight of earnest messages. He is so concerned with testifying through movement that he might be a preacher trapped in a choreographer’s body.

For example, Come Ye (2003), a five-part suite to songs by the ferocious Nina Simone and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, is filled with images of prayer, mourning and the sense of being possessed by spirits. One by one, dancers are spiritually moved, so they move to the center where they dance fiercely, though always with clean control.

Brown keeps all his dancers onstage most of the time. They may dance as individuals, with little physical contact, but they are always mindful of each other’s moves. If one dancer struts to the center, a group of four will line up at the side to watch and subtly echo the rhythm. Or, Brown will match his stage compositions to the music, bringing four women forward to dance one driving rhythm, while two men dance the drumming counter-rhythm in the background.

Come Ye juxtaposes African sections (but, with contemporary political vocal lines) with Simone’s songs, including her prayerful “Sunday in Savannah” with red-clay-colored lighting by Brenda Gray that made the dancers’ bare feet look burned by heavenly fire. In Simone’s “Dressed for Revolution,” the dancers raise their fists in a mocking, superficial pan-Africanism that seems cool, but doesn’t lead to productive action. Long-legged Juel Lane in a swinging frock coat leads a twisting line of dancers, which turns, so that the end becomes the beginning. This leads to the final African sections that seem to embody a truer revolutionary spirit.

Terry Riley’s music for Dance for Peace (2004) is a classical take on polyrhythmic African music. The Kronos Quartet recording kept the insistent ground line repeating relentlessly beneath the music’s electrifying surface; the dancers split into contending groups at odds with each other. Peace incorporated self-consciously “modern” moves in slow motion, layered with torso-driven traditional African moves.

Lane looked like a long-legged shore bird in the opening solo, For You (2003), Brown’s tribute to the late Stephanie Reinhart, co-director of the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., where Brown/Evidence often works. A programmatic and almost too pretty dance, For You is composed of thoughtful walking punctuated by bursts of frantic movement. Lane puts a hand to his heart, acknowledges flowers strewn on the ground, spins and travels the stage, and sometimes falls to earth writhing in sorrow, all to the velvety recording of Donny Hathaway’s song.

The dancer is a joy to watch because, like all Brown’s dancers, he gives himself fully to the choreography. Brown, though, might make his spiritual points more strongly if he dared to be less literal and less insistent on pursuing an uplifting message.

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