Choreographer Ronald K. Brown on 30 years of making dance stories, traveling to the birthplace of West African dance and his company’s upcoming performance for TITAS at AT&T Performing Arts Center.
Dallas — Ronald K. Brown doesn’t just make dances; he makes dance stories. Using a combination of contemporary and African dance styles, including Afro-Cuban and spiritual movement, Brown creates work that provides a unique view of human struggles, tragedies and triumphs. His choice of music, literature and spoken word reinforces these themes and helps acquaint audiences with the beauty of African forms and rhythms. This kind of physical storytelling along with Brown’s humility and emotional depth is why he is considered one of today’s leading contemporary choreographers.
A Brooklyn native, Brown began studying dance at a Police Athletic League summer program at age 6. His dream was to train with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but in high school he changed his focus to creative writing and journalism. After spending the summer before college dancing, Brown realized his true calling and resumed his dance training. Brown has studied a variety of dance techniques, including Graham, ballet, traditional West African dance and Brazilian capoeira. At 16 he began studying at Mary Anthony dance studio in Manhattan, and two years later founded Evidence, which is named after the first dance he choreographed in 1985.
Entering its 30th season, Ronald K. Brown/EvidenceDance Company has traveled across the U.S. and abroad, including Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal, to name a few. In 2010 the company joined the U.S. State Department’s DanceMotion USA tour to perform, teach and conduct demonstrations. In addition to Evidence, Brown has also set works on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson Ensemble, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Jennifer Muller/The Works, Philadanco, Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago and more. He has collaborated with such artists as composer/designer Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya, the late writer Craig G. Harris, director Ernie McClintock’s Jazz Actors Theater and composers Robert Een, Oliver Lake, Bernadette Speech, David Simons and Don Meissner. His other accolades include the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Choreographers Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, United States Artists Fellowship and The Ailey Apex Award for teaching.
Evidence will be performing at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas on Jan. 17. The program includes Brown’s Come Ye (2002) and On Earth Together (2011). Using music by Nina Simone and Fela Kuti, Come Ye is a call to all those willing to fight for their lives with the ultimate goal being peace. In On Earth Together Brown uses music by Stevie Wonder to reinforce this idea of a loving and compassionate place to celebrate a world view.
TheaterJones asks Ronald K. Brown about his travels to West Africa, incorporating his writing lessons into the choreographic process and the life experiences that ultimately led to the creation of the two works his company will be showing in Dallas, Come Ye and On Earth Together.
TheaterJones: Critics are always quick to comment on your poignant storytelling. How did you uncover this ability?
Ronald K. Brown: What’s interesting is that I had all these false starts with my interest and love for dance. I remember at 12 heading to an audition at the Dance Theatre of Harlem when my Mom went into labor with my little brother. I decided then to forget about dance and focus on being a big brother and a writer. So, I went to the Arts Center in Lower Manhattan where I studied creative writing and journalism with the intent of making this my career. It wasn’t long after that when I bit the bullet and realized I did want to dance and I wanted to have a company. I knew I wanted the work to be about something. A kind of physical storytelling in a way. So, when I am creating something I write a lot and I share that with the dancers to help them embody the words of the story. It’s not about acting it out or pantomime. It’s about capturing the true essence of what the story is.
How does your creative writing background aid you in your choreographic process?
I usually come into the studio with ideas and music, but no steps and am improvising while the dancers follow me around. So I build a phrase, which is just like writing a sentence, and from there I build paragraphs and organize it so that they make sense. So the structure of the work is similar to that of writing a story. Writing also makes me conscious of what is and isn’t necessary in the work. Even with that said editing a piece is still very hard. I remember in the early 90’s I was as physical as I could be in my dancing. And then I starting playing with gestures and getting a little more introverted with some of my work. In 1994 everything started to come together in terms of dealing with the physicality and gesturing of my movement.
In the early ’80s was physical storytelling a new concept to dancers and choreographers?
Trisha Brown was really popular in the 80s. The downtown dance world was really about the Alexander technique and about finding the facility in your body absent of emotion. In the history of dance everyone is trying to learn from the generations before, but I think with traditional modern dance a lot of us teachers were then having hip replacements and wanted to develop a teaching and way of moving that really takes care of the body. So, for a young black man from Brooklyn creating movement that was absent of emotion and story just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. Even though I was working downtown I was still trying to say something with it. I am also in the mindset of not harming the dancers’ bodies. There is nothing aloof about our dancing. An example is Doug Varone and his company. I am drawn to the fire of the company’s dancing and the overall physicality of it.
Can you tell me what was going on in your life during the creation of Come Ye (2002) and On Earth Together(2011) and how it impacted the work?
Our country had just gone into Afghanistan when I started working on Come Ye. And it got me thinking about the men and women willing to risk their lives for us and I am just so thankful for them. I was really aware of all the young people going over there. While my company was touring I remember seeing these young people in uniform sitting and playing on their portable video games and my heart felt so heavy. That stayed with me and one day while I was on my hands and knees cleaning my apartment this song by Nina Simone came on. And I had figured that I would do something to her music at some point. It was Come Ye, and in the song it says everyone who is dedicated to fighting for your life, it’s time to learn how to pray. And I realized that is how I feel. This song is over 30 years old, so what happened to all of the lessons we were taught by the revolutionaries who believed that in the time of war that the destination is still peace? The piece began to unfold as I thought about all the unrest in the world and how we try to deal with it. It starts with Simone’s Come Ye and goes into her Sunday in Savannah, Revolution and ends with a song by Fela Anikulapo Kuti nicknamed Amen. He wrote this song after his mother was thrown out of a window because he had spoken out against the government in Nigeria. So, the song speaks of this tragedy and yet is so full of prayer. In the last three minutes of the piece you see images of Gandhi, Bob Marley and all these people who are about liberation while the dancers on stage are trying to embody their warrior nature.
In On Earth Together there is a song in the third section called They Won’t Go When I Go, which is the same song I used for a solo I did back in 1987. My mom passed on in 1996 and my dear friend Dr. Johnson passed on in 2010 and so this section is really about legacy. There’s a moment when everyone’s on stage and one person walks around to check on a few people who are just standing there. I had to give notes to this person and I was so overcome with emotion that I had to walk out of the room.
How do you encourage your dancers to get to such a vulnerable place?
During the rehearsal process I do use different exercises and techniques to help them embrace the essence of the work. Sometimes we watch a movie or share written literature. So, the dancers do have to do a certain amount of homework in addition to learning movement. Another example is when I am trying to have them embody fear I will just scream as loud as I can so they can experience a natural reaction. I also look for dancers who have a simplicity in their performance and presentation. How do they deliver the material in an audition or in a class? There has to be a humility and an openness to their dancing.
You have traveled all over the world experiencing different dance cultures. What dance styles did you encounter?
When I traveled to West Africa in 1995 I think my exposure to traditional, social, contemporary and spiritual dancing helped me understand where I stood in this continuum of contemporary dance. Before that I think I was nervous about using traditional dance steps. I would deconstruct the rhythm or play with the technique but realized I wanted to do something else. And when I started working there I was told that when you touch African dance it automatically becomes something else. A similar thing happened when I went to Cuba for the first time in 2001. I was exposed to traditional and social dances that really broadened my vocabulary and my eye. There is this one style I encountered in Senegal called sabar that makes sense to my body, but then Afro-Cuban also feels really good on my body. And I incorporate all these techniques into my movement vocabulary.
This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.