His dances are drawn from spiritual voyages
By Valerie Gladstone, Globe Correspondent | December 1, 2006
When Ronald K. Brown established his company, Evidence, in Brooklyn in 1985 , he was only 19, a virtuosic and charismatic dancer. He'd performed with the Jennifer Muller Company, but he wanted to create his own works, not dance those of others.
Now one of America's top choreographers, Brown, 40, creates dances in a distinctive high-energy style, blending influences from African, Caribbean, and modern dance as well as ballet and hip-hop. He uses music as diverse as Duke Ellington, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, and Bob Marley. And he's committed to telling stories related to the African diaspora, often infusing them with social commentary and a powerful spirituality.
Brown has created dances for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater , Philadanco , and other troupes . Evidence presents his "Order My Steps" and "Walking Out the Dark," both Boston premieres, and "Grace" at the Cutler Majestic Theater tonight and tomorrow.
Brown recently spoke by phone about his choreography .
Q Is all your work religious?
A When someone once asked me if all my dances were going to be about God, I answered, "I think so." But I don't want to make works that seem preachy or self-righteous. The challenge is to trust the process and maintain integrity. I think there's a place for this conversation in concert dance.
Q Are your new pieces, "Order My Steps" and "Walking Out the Dark," connected to other dances in your repertory?
A I think of all of my work as part of one big piece. Each one tells a different story about getting to the temple of God, which is in your heart. The stories are about those journeys. They are about how people walk the path.
Q What kind of journeys do these dances depict?
A "Order My Steps" deals with our journey in a sociopolitical way. It's about how spirituality can exist within the context of a community. It grew out of a conversation I had with Chad Boseman , a playwright, actor, and director. We were trying to understand our purpose as artists, and how sometimes we wonder if we are staying on track or are stumbling. It's kind of a plea to God, saying how much we want our words and actions to be filled with love.
Q I understand that "Walking Out the Dark" was inspired by a rite-of-passage ceremony you witnessed in Burkina Faso , in which young men are buried underground overnight. How does that figure in your piece?
A It's about struggling to break free from your fears and inhibitions to become your highest self. "Grace," on the other hand, is more of a wide-stroke dance. It's simple, like the definition of grace: getting another chance when you really don't deserve it.
Q How would you like audiences to respond to these dances?
A I want them to leave feeling a sense of joy and possibility.
Q What would you do if you didn't dance and choreograph?
A I might have a health food store or perhaps sell oranges -- sliced in a bag -- on the street. I could also do massage therapy.
Q What has dance given you?
A It's given me freedom. It's a way to connect with people and act as a bridge. And it's a chance to speak out on issues or feelings that I feel need physical expression.
Q Would you give an example?
A Last week in Miami, I taught a text and movement workshop, an exercise where we exchange stories and then dance them without words. I told a story of being called by my father last March to come home to Raeford, N.C. I was in Boston at the time, about to start choreographing at the Boston Arts Academy . I took the train down, and my Nana, who had been sick, was in bed. She made her transition the next day. I spent the rest of the time there with my Poppi. I tell that story far better in dance than in words.
Q Any new projects coming up?
A I recently began thinking about choreographing a musical with Stevie Wonder's music. Disney also gave me a call about possibly doing a musical like the ones by Twyla Tharp . I'm not sure what will come of it. But I want to do something with Stevie Wonder's music. Just think about his name and the spirituality of his songs.
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