on stage: Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.
With the Feet
Mae G. Banner
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.
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
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