Impressions: Ronald K. Brown at the Joyce, or The Pleasure of Dancing Together
It is rare indeed to attend a dance performance at which one feels as if one were dancing along with the people onstage. And I’m not talking about audience participation—that anxiety-producing rupture of the fourth wall and all the fumbling intimacy it implies. I mean real transport, a sense of inclusiveness and generosity flowing both ways across the footlights. I felt it last night (July 9) at a performance by Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence at the Joyce. And I was not alone. When aked about his sources of inspiration, Brown speaks of compassion, love and the human spirit. All notions that make me squirm when applied to dance. How does one approach such lofty ideals without bludgeoning the audience? Somehow, Brown pulls it off. I left the Joyce feeling, well, elated, buoyed by the afterglow produced by people sharing the pleasure of dancing together.
The program consisted of Gatekeepers, a work from 1999 originally made for the Philadelphia-based modern dance company Philadanco, and On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table, an extended version of Brown’s 2011 piece On Earth Together, inspired by the songs of Stevie Wonder. Both use pop music. (Gatekeepers is set to pulsing Afro-pop by the Nigerian-born singer Wunmi.) But what’s remarkable is how Brown uses the music. He isn’t satisfied with overlaying the throbbing beat with spectacular moves, or with having his dancers vamp for the audience. And he eschews the overused device of unison movement. His stage patterns are alive in a way that is both organic and pleasing in its complexity. He constantly finds ways to create counterpoint. In a typical sequence, he might introduce three dancers, separately at first, then briefly combine them in a trio, then add a soloist. But the soloist isn’t forced to choose between his own story and that of the group; instead, Brown weaves him in and out of sync with the others. H e eliminates the hierarchy of ensemble to soloist, replacing it with a free-flowing structure in which relationships emerge, develop, dissolve, and shift, and everyone is equal. Similarly, the choreography is full of contrasts of slow and fast, staccato and legato. In a word, he’s musical.
All this, combined with Brown’s lush, kinetic style—which integrates African, Caribbean, and urban club dance elements—makes for an intoxicating mix. (Though, it must be said that he loses his way in the slower passages. Without rhythmic underpinnings, the movement becomes stolid.) But for all the vibrancy of the dancing, nothing is oversold, nothing is forced. His dancers are graceful, stylish, and beautiful to watch, but fundamentally modest in their presentation. No divas here. The lack of overt spectacle or overwrought partnering—in fact, the dancers seldom touch—creates that most elusive quality: the illusion of spontaneity. It is a characteristic that also describes Brown as a dancer.
He performed in the second work, set to Stevie Wonder songs. This big, beautiful man moves with the suaveté and earthy weightedness of a sexy uncle at a family picnic. He is irresistible. Seeing him lope and roll across the stage, arms swooping through the air, one knows exactly where the quality of the choreography comes from. A generation older than his dancers, he envelops them in his gaze, and they respond in kind; when he is onstage, he is the center of their universe. One can see why the directors of the Broadway production of Porgy and Bess asked him to choreograph the show. This is a man who could get anyone to move. Several singers from the Broadway show—all of them excellent—performed Wonder’s songs with great verve. At the end of the evening, the band just kept on playing. The dancers too, lingered awhile. They were still dancing , even as the curtain came down.
Ronald K. Brown’s company, Evidence, will be at the Joyce through July 14.
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