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Watch and learn: Ronald K. Brown/Evidence..

African-American Stories

By Mae G. Banner

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
The Egg, March 14

Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE dances the African diaspora. Moving at the center of his six-member company, Brown took last Friday’s audience at the Egg back and forth through time and space, stringing together scenes of plantation slavery, Saturday-night jukin’, club partying, and solemn worship from West Africa and the black American experience.

Brown has said he builds his dances scene by scene to tell a story. Indeed, High Life (2000) and Walking Out the Dark (2001) both resembled long (sometimes, too-long) strings of carved wooden beads. Each kinetic treasure was intricate or exciting, but Brown imposed little overall structure to make sense of the whole.

High Life, illumined by a thrilling selection of country blues and contemporary West African club music, marks the African-American experience, starting with a bitter scene of a slave auction. One at a time, each dancer steps forward and moves to the knife-edge words of the auctioneer’s chant, “Bid ’em in.”

The scenes that follow represent the historic internal migration from South to North that began in the 1920s, and the countrified, sensual jazz dancing that provided the rhythm for Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz.

Between the music-driven sections, Nikki Giovanni reads two poems in her East Tennessee twang (taped voiceovers) that comment on characters portrayed by the dancers. Brown, who has always written poetry, uses the spoken word to underscore the dancing or to link sections together. He also uses many costume changes to suggest changing periods or, as in High Life, the dance’s sudden shift from America to West Africa.

Club dancing and street dancing, which Brown observed during his performing residencies in Senegal, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, inspire the final sections of High Life. The dancers move sleekly and powerfully in the West African style. They keep their bodies loose-limbed, bent-kneed, flat-footed, always driven by the juicy polyrhythms of the music. Their feet can be going one way and their shoulders another. Their legs can shoot out from their torsos on their own power, or their feet can slide back and forth effortlessly in invisible grooves.

Brooklyn-born Brown founded Evidence in 1985. Over the years, his choreography for the troupe has become increasingly tied to West African sources, and his dances more spiritually motivated. Walking Out the Dark is a plea for his brothers and sisters to talk with each other, pass through their grief, and love one another.

Four dancers—Diedre Dawkins, Brown, Bridget Moore and Arcell Cabuag—dressed in white for mourning, stand at four corners of the stage, in diagonal opposition to each other. Moving to a deep and healing blues, one pair, then the other, approach each other along these diagonals to dance a silent conversation with involved, imploring bodies that plead but never touch. Their striving unresolved, they step backward into their corners, into the dark.

The middle section, to the eerie harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock and music by Cutumba Ballet Folklorico de Santiago de Cuba, seems to be happening at the graveside. Brown continues to plow African fields as he and his dancers take solo turns, legs pumping, arms flailing, hips swinging, driven by the drums.

Finally, the drums stop and only the sound of patting feet and the intake of dancers’ breath can be heard. Now, the dancers lie on their backs, inert. Dirt—brown and golden in the light—falls from above in heavy streams, pummeling their still bodies in a symbolic burial.

A live drummer, Mamadouba Mohamed Camara, a guest artist from Guinea, dominates the final celebratory section. Again, the four dancers begin by dancing at, rather than with, each other, but this time, they begin to respond to each other’s moves. Their arms reach out to each other. The dance gets wilder, more exuberant, and the dancers leave the stage with a last bow to the earth.

Walking should have ended here, but Brown, so full of ideas, cannot bring himself to edit. So, he strings several more beads onto his lengthening necklace. Dancers— now all in red—stand, roll, spin, kneel, or fall prostrate before the magnificent drummer, and rise again, aflame with the beat. The dancing takes on a spontaneous quality that could be improvised, but Brown’s choreographic hand keeps each dancer hitting the right spot at the right moment.

He may be undisciplined and overflowing with ideas, but Brown’s work serves dance by bringing the African source to the surface and making it sing.


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