Ronald K. Brown Evidence
February 18, 2018
In a moment rife with both intense minority resistance as well as simultaneous backlash against and commodification of it, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence’s Joyce season is a peacefully subversive offering, celebrating blackness in a studied and curated way, that does not preach so much as situates itself, as itself, into a contemporary art modality.
Brown’s ultimate challenge is retaining the communal energy of the traditional African dance forms from which he draws in the intense spatial segregation of a proscenium theatre, for which Come Ye is the perfect opener, beginning boldly in the formation few contemporary choreographers dare to sincerely stage – the horizontal line – from which solos and duets emerge and return to the negative space held by their fellow dancers, suggesting invariable connectivity despite diaspora. The dancing maintains isolation, yet is elegantly designed to sync in and out with events happening across the space.
Dancing Spirit closes the program with an alternate use of line formations – a diagonal conveyor belt containing a long, cannoned loop, of which every dancer gets to be both follower and leader / child and elder. After exiting, they reenter, renewed, surrounding the initial procession’s completion like a cell membrane, a self-contained physical system.
Such elegant composition metaphorically joins together the artistic results of the African diaspora into a fluidly focused movement language, a mixed bag of riffing actions from traditional African forms, jazz, hip-hop, and their resulting impact on contemporary dance. Den of Dreams features Brown along with Associate Artistic Director Arcell Cabuag, perhaps the only two dancers who can make mirrored unison look conversational. The actual choreography is hidden – a sequence of internal impulses, inciting their flesh to idiosyncratically spiral and melt around them accordingly.
Come Ye, on the other hand, has quite an external vocabulary – a series of physical snapshots of celebratory tropes such as social dancing, miming of urban pedestrianism, cartwheels, and absorptions of the earth’s energy. They notice when there is a syntactic shift, stopping to ponder the rapturous grand battement that interrupts the group’s grounded flow, before willingly joining in.
Similarly pluralist are musical juxtapositions. Come Ye ties together three manifestations blackness in a steady exposition of traditional African movement to Nina Simone jazzifying a southern folk tune. It connotes the spiritual, which serves as the soundtrack to slavery’s horror despite an often joyous sound. There is similarly rarely physical angst in Brown’s work, but he actively disallows these movements from becoming the dance of 21st century racism, insisting instead on their ability to speak to the totality of the black experience, for all to understand.
There are occasional moments of forced relevance. Come Ye’s second half, featuring a red backdrop behind Black Panther-esque costuming, feels unnecessarily decorative. While incredibly convenient in timing, 1995’s Lessons: March has audience members whooping in agreement not so much to the dancing, but to the excerpt’s soundtrack of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech on white supremacy and privilege. Nonetheless, Brown uses these tactics sparingly to aid in the work’s accessibility, all the while demonstrating himself as fully capable and successful at achieving full embodiment and clear communication of his subject matter.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews