Ronald K. Brown originally thought he would be a journalist or a playwright. Growing up surrounded by writers, it made sense; he had a knack for it too. But when he started doing musicals in high school, the dance passion took hold.
During his childhood in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant, he took classes in the Police Athletic League Dance Program, and began to study under Mary Anthony, whose technique was a combination of Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. Anthony's studio eventually became the place of Brown's first performance. By 1985, he was ready to start his own company, Evidence, A Dance Company. It was Brown's way to represent family--his family, our family--ancestors, and teachers; to explore what community was, is, and can be. And this weekend, his company will be in Dallas, as part of TITAS.
"The mission of Evidence is to promote understanding of the human experience," Brown says over the phone earlier this month "with [the company] I'm able to explore struggles we all go through...the tragedies and the triumphs."
Through African dance, contemporary choreography, and spoken word, Brown has been able to tell those stories across the United States and internationally--the company has traveled to Cuba, Brazil, England, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, and Canada. While many of his works deal with African American culture and community, there is a universality that comes through when the audience tunes into the concept behind each of the performances. That ability might stem from his experience in theatre.
The best example of how Brown has been able to combine his theatre training and experience with dance comes from his time working on the recent Broadway revival of Porgy & Bess. When he first began working on the production, he was told he was going to get two real dancers; but he didn't just wanted two "real" dancers, he wanted everyone to dance, and everyone in the cast was going to dance, whether they were prepared or not. "Anytime anyone said 'I can't sing. I can't dance. Or I can't sing and dance at the same time. I would just tell them, 'Let's figure it out.' Turn can't into a way to discover what you can do," says Brown.
He managed to transition those blocks and frustration into motivation, and this has proved to be effective in his more recent works that utilize nonverbal storytelling. It's difficult for dancers to sometimes tap into the reality behind a piece they are performing, especially if they don't personally understand the concept. "What we feel is what the audience is going to feel...they feel with us...it's like a heart to heart conversation."
Needless to say, it's very important for Brown that his performers physically tell the stories he is crafting with no artificiality. Luckily, he has been able to mentor his performers and create spaces in which they feel comfortable (or uncomfortable, if that is the story he is wishing to tell) and gives them the ability to explore and find connections as they become apparent.
"I try to give them as much information as possible to find their entrance into the story," says Brown, and the dances that he has been creating do just that as they play within the theme of legacy. We all understand that concept, and that's one element that makes his work so successful.
For the show in Dallas on Saturday, January 17 at the Winspear Opera House, Evidence will be presenting two works, "Come Ye" and "On Earth Together." The first was choreographed in 2002, inspired by the events of 9/11 and is set to music by Nina Simone. It explores questions that Brown had following his own experiences from witnessing war-torn areas of the world and his admiration for those who fight for our country and for our freedom.
"Have we forgotten about peace? I don't know, but when you hear these stories about so many young people going to war and giving their lives for their different beliefs, it's a question I think about," says Brown.
His response, which leaves the question open for interpretation, was "Come Ye." In Brown's own words, it "is a call to all those living in fear, all those willing to fight for their lives, and ultimately, to peace as guide and warrior."
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"On Earth Together," set to a collection of songs by Stevie Wonder first premiered in 2011, and has been in constant development ever since. More and more songs get added to the piece, which works in tandem with Brown's philosophy of creating a legacy. Wonder's music is a legacy in and of itself, and has had a significant influence on many communities across the world. The performers represent that idea as they create their own community within the work.
From the program note Brown has included it's clear that this piece is a cornerstone of his work and personifies his physical storytelling aesthetic: "The more I discover and imagine I see the work as a commitment to making the world a better place: a loving and compassionate place to celebrate a world-view. The music of Stevie Wonder often speaks to the state of the world, asking questions of oneself and to society at large. The movement vocabulary, in On Earth Together will include the intentions in dances related to purpose and carving a way."
The dancers have found their connection to the choreography and the narrative, but will that translate to the audience? We'll only find out when they perform at the Winspear Opera House. But what we are bound to feel is in a good mood, because how can you not feel good after listening to some Stevie Wonder?
TITAS presents Evidence, A Dance Company, Saturday, January 17 at 8:00 p.m. at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street. Tickets $12-$135. 214-880-0202.