Ronald K. Brown makes good dances, but he makes great dancing. Seldom do we see steps so rhythmically rich, full-bodied, and ardent. Whatever Brown’s subject, the movement—his contemporary take on West African styles—expresses jubilation in ways that bring audiences to their feet. Brown is a religious man, and those who people his works look as if they’re laboring in the fields of the Lord, every drop of sweat flying straight up to heaven. If his dances often seem to go on too long, to meander despite formal patterning, it’s because he choreographs like an inspired preacher, carried away by the repeated, escalating throb of his message.
His latest work, Truth Don Die takes it title from a song by Fema Kuti that’s also heard during the dance. A man named Truth travels the world spreading God’s word; fatally injured in a car accident, he lives because of his exemplary faith. Truth never dies. This metaphorical tale doesn’t appear in the dance, but the image of dancing as spiritual labor accords with it well enough. Truth Don Die begins with Tiffany Jackson alone on stage, accompanied by a fervent love song to Jesus, sung on tape by Omotayo “Wunmi” Olaiya (“Why did you leave heaven for all these earthly things?” is one of the lines). A powerful dancer, Jackson begins swaying, bent over and rooted to the floor. As she expands into space with velvety explosions of movement—turns that unfurl, supple kicks—you feel that power smoking though her undulating body and coming out her fingertips. She seems to be exploring—searching—as she dances. She repeats the solo, or most of it, later in the piece, with different emphases and to a song by Me Shell Ndegeocello. By the end of the piece, when she and everyone else has changed out of softly draped gray pants and tops (Olaiya is also a costume designer) into tight black pants and vests with red piping, she’s radiating joy.
When Fred Hammond’s music for organ and choir kicks in, Arcell Cabuag, Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins, Juel Lane, and Keon Thoulouis join Jackson. The word “order” keeps leaping from the lyrics, and a certain order underlies the dancing. Brown favors unison, and it gives the exulting individuals a ritualistic power. Dalila Kee’s lighting emphasizes the fervor by turning the cyclorama brilliant red and then spraying it with fountains of golden rays.
Brown’s sense of pattern also strengthens his 2005 Order My Steps, with the dancers stepping along light paths made of diamond shapes strung together or encircling Collins in her moment of inspiration. And in Grace (1999), the interplay of quartets for the eight performers—four men, four women (including Khetanya Henderson and Clarice Young), the two women and two men in red, the remaining pairs in white—imparts shape to the piece. Bridget Moore is temporarily on leave from the company, and Brown himself introduces Grace as a kind of shaman who’s both inspirational and sensual. I don’t really grasp how Chad Boseman’s confessional speech about redemption from a hard-losing life links to the vibrant dancing of Order My Steps (for sheer beauty, the dancers might be his angel chorus). I don’t see how Grace‘s red-clad people differ from the ones in white; I only realize that white signifies the more exalted state when they all appear in snowy outfits. The brief intermittent arguments between two people rarely register as such.
I go to a concert by Ron Brown for uplifting dancing that’s more deeply, stirringly devotional than any message he wants it to deliver. It’s thrilling to see those knees lift high, those feet tread the floor as if it were loam, those hips ripple, those arms wheel and pat the air, those bodies vault into jumps. Just looking at Lane’s incredibly long, slim limbs whip and caress the air brings me a lot closer to whatever heaven is.