Ronald K. Brown and Evidence
by Stephanie Rieke
A man and a woman emerge from isolated cocoons of light and meet center stage. After a brief confrontational "monologue," the woman folds to the floor in supplication, vulnerable on her back, legs bent skyward, arms above her head, as if to say, "I'm spent; your turn." The man answers her by urgently repeating the ritual. Set to Philip Hamilton's incantatory music and Brenda Dolan's intense lighting design, this opening sequence of Ron Brown's Walking Out the Dark (2001) is an aching study in human disconnection.
But the episodic marquee piece to be performed here on opening night when Brown brings his company Evidence to the Power Center on Sunday and Monday, January 16 and 17 is so much more, embodying as it does Brown's dizzying synthesis of influences and histories. As an African American choreographer, Brown honors the cultural continuum that includes Asadata Dafora (credited with being the first to meld West African dance with theatrical polish in the 1930s), Katherine Dunham, and Alvin Ailey and transforms it. His expansive lexicon seamlessly fuses West African and Afro-Caribbean vernacular, Brazilian capoeira, modern dance, hip-hop, ballet, and club moves. Brown has described his cohesive aesthetic as "evidence" of everything that makes up who we are: our ancestors, life lessons, deeply felt yearnings, and spirituality.
When he founded Evidence in 1985 at the precocious age of nineteen, Brown wasn't comfortable cribbing from African dance, believing his efforts would be an illegitimate expression of that rich heritage. But since 1994, after choreographing and teaching in West Africa and conducting research in the African diaspora, he has experienced firsthand the contemporary evolution of traditional African dance, and the issue of authenticity resolved itself. Brown's dances explore community dynamics and human exchange, but they're also about giving yourself over to the divine, leaving the world behind. His work always reflects the heart and spirit behind the movement. This won't be news to those fortunate patrons who witnessed High
Life, Brown's series of evocative migration stories, during the company's last visit, in 2001.
On January 17, Come Ye (2003), an homage to Nina Simone and a call for peaceful revolution, presents music by Simone and Fela Kuti, the Afro-pop musician and Nigerian political activist who is a Brown favorite. I had the chance to see Come Ye as a promising work-in-progress in 2003 at the American Dance Festival a longtime nurturer of Brown's choreography. With its sweeping Senegalese and Cuban vocabularies, it has since graduated to become one of Brown's most affecting and addictive pieces.
Both programs organized by UMS as part of the university's Martin Luther King Jr. weekend observances open with the powerful Upside Down (1998). Grace (1999), originally commissioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, closes the Monday program.
[Originally published in January, 2005.]