Ronald K. Brown’s new and recent dances tell me that he loves God, that he believes in personal salvation and peace between nations and people, and that he choreographs some of the most gorgeous movement I’ve seen—which members of his Evidence perform with gut-busting, deep-hearted, soul-stirred commitment.
Brown used to tackle—or at least broach—specific narratives: family history, AIDS, violence in the African American community. Those traces of the particular don’t appear in the works featured on Program A of his Joyce season. Themes of journey, confrontation, and transformation are expressed through variegated, full-out dancing. It’s not always clear what has caused a transition to a new state or what has changed. For instance, in the opening solo of his 1999 Grace (originally choreographed for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), as performed by Bridget Moore, this woman in white is clearly the goddess the playbill says she is. However, when she lays down Brown’s rich African-influenced vocabulary, she’s not asserting a doctrine, she’s experiencing a bonding of flesh and spirit, shading her movements to suggest challenges, questions, severity, joyful surrender.
I accept Camille A. Brown, Juel Lane, and the choreographer as angelic beings; they too wear white. But how can we tell that the folks in red need salvation? Arcell Cabuag, Keon Thoulouis, Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins, and Tiffany Jackson don’t dance very differently from the others, although they are sometimes set apart. In the end, everyone is wearing white, so there must have been a turning point, but I missed it. What I saw was mainly dancing as spiritual labor—beautiful and profound.
Brown seems to shun climaxes. In his 2002 Walking Out the Dark, four individuals (C. Brown, Collins, Cabuag, and Lane) inhabit separate spotlit areas. A voice speaking in the darkness before the lights come up tells us that “we must speak the truth to each other or else stay buried in the dark.” C. Brown strides up to Collins and starts “speaking,” her body language fiercely argumentative. Collins, a spikier, angrier dancer, responds. In these dialogues—as nuanced as conversation—between the two women, between the two men, or among all four, we may not know the subject but we get the drift: dissent, shared suffering, indecision, and a desire for community. At the end, however, they all lie in a line facing the sky, separated, and we don’t know what they may have achieved.
The choreographer’s latest piece, Order My Steps
, set to music by Fred Hammond, Terry Riley, and Bob Marley, is also a journey. People follow life’s path, lose their way, and turn to prayer for enlightenment. Again the movement and its performance are more elegantly conceived and formed than the overall structure. From time to time, lighting designer Dalila Kee lays bright paths of diamond shapes on the floor for the dancers to move along or within. A trio (Lane, Collins, and Jackson) and a quartet (C. Brown, Cabuag, Moore, and Thoulouis) often work in counterpoint. The four enter with poet Chad Boseman, and react in nonliteral ways to the lines he speaks, over a whine of stringed instruments, about trying to beat addiction. “Make war on yourself,” he says and, ruefully, “I know the dance”—meaning the two-step of resistance and temptation.
Brown gives us stunning passages of choreography, mixing into the fluid dancing meditation poses and gestures that turn an arm into a pointing gun. At one point the four acquire a tremor in their legs. Again, transitions from one mood or behavior to another are not pointed up. Boseman says his piece and leaves. Hammond’s singing fades into Terry Riley’s repetitive instrumental cycles, which are in turn engulfed by Marley’s Exodus. Order My Steps shows off the dancers in solos and introduces us to Brown’s language—the arms that circle from behind and press down the air; the little patting gestures; the complicated rhythmic interaction of hips, torso, and head; the play of knees and ankles that creates the resilient steps and explosive leaps. C. Brown stretches a gesture, suspends it, then snaps into another; her body transforms from moment to moment according to what’s running through her mind. Tall, slender Lane’s arms and legs fly into space, carving it into pieces, creating serene turbulence around him. Sometimes I think this is enlightenment enough.