DanceView Times, New York edition
The underlying sense of impassioned spirituality that underlies Ronald K. Brown's work tends to evoke a powerful response in audiences, but it can also be problematic. He creates dances that allude to a higher purpose, using a blend of African-inspired movement and club-dancing sensuality, and they make a strong impact on an emotional level. His Grace (1999) for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater tends to leave audiences ecstatic, but while it a rich display of luscious movement, it creates what amounts to a cheap high, greatly buoyed by some luscious music.
The latest program his company brought to the Joyce offered a great deal of wonderful dancing, earnestly presented and propelled by noble or spiritual intentions. But it revealed the weaknesses of Brown's choreography, which assembles some blazing and thrilling passages of movement but doesn't always have a structure or coherent plan behind it.
He favors and over-uses, processionals; in almost every work, the dancers crossed and re-crossed the stage, snaking in a line. When they break apart, they dance for and with each other, but rarely interact. The dancing is definitely very expressive—sometimes celebratory, sometimes mournful—but maintains them as separate bodies, avoiding the possibilities of partnering. When it's time for a piece to end, the dancers walk, or saunter offstage.
Come Ye, the program's world premiere, began with a starker, more contained tone as eight dancers in silhouette kept the focus more on their formations that their individual expression. Inspired by, and set to, Nina Simone recordings, it evoked the gospel fervor of a Sunday church service before moving on to grittier dancing that seethed with anger and defiance. As it got more message-inspired—the dancers lined up with raised fists, video footage of the civil rights era projected on the cyc—the disciplined intensity with which the piece opened was lost.
The dancers began the piece in the most simple and contemporary costumes of the program, but added various tunics and chicly distracting tops (one seemed to be wearing a Mao jacket) as Come Ye developed. Nina Simone gave way to Fela Kuti's lush, earthy sounds (one section had a tropical feel) that began to feel repetitive. Brown played the four women and four men, in groups doing unison phrases, off each other, and returned to his favored line formations, at one point having the dancers cross and circle the stage along paths of projected light.
As if the spiritual message of certain Simone songs he used were not sufficient, Brown included an extended poetic program note for Come Ye, which included the lines "the dance is a call to prayer/and an agreement to call/on the highest self available/to serve as guide and warrior." It also spoke of heroes, hope and fear—quite a lot of baggage to impose on one dance. It's understandable that Brown wants to freight his dances with meaning and importance, but sometimes in filling a piece with so much of that, he loses its central focus and the dancing becomes over-extended.
Shown in excerpted form, his 2001 Walking out the Dark was a more compact and effective ceremonial journey. Brown set the tone by reciting another spiritual poem, this time a stylized letter, which included lines such as "we have been living separate lives at a distance." When the music (by Cuban and Guinean composers) began and four dancers took the stage, the pulsating, intense display of nonstop movement in a tight circle kept the four dancers working closely as though pulled together by centrifugal force. Their bodies have an amazing freedom and openness as they move through Brown's passages of scooping and flailing, turning and undulating with an improvisational immediacy.
Brown, a mesmerizing and charismatic dancer who phrases with effortless naturalness, then rippled through a supple solo of thanks, finishing by lying prone, face down. The concluding quartet was another of his fluent processionals, this one bathed in red light, the dancers happily dancing with fervor and abandon, to and for each other, until one by one they found their way into the wings.
Brown's new solo, For You, was another opportunity to admire the eloquence and fluency of his own dancing. While there is no program note, the solo was first performed as a tribute to the late Stephanie Reinhart, co-director of the American Dance Festival. Set to the same Donny Hathway song to which Alvin Ailey created a yearning solo for Dudley Williams, it had Brown (wearing orange African-style loose tunic and pants) standing still near stage left in front of four small clusters of white flowers, until movement seemed to burst through. He worked from a very controlled center, allowing gentle, curving phrases to break forth, and maintaining an aura of calm and reflection even as his dancing gained in intensity. Casting a final, reflective gaze back at the flowers as he walked quietly offstage into the opposite wing.
Opening the program was the three-year-old High Life, a 40-minute exploration of the slave trade and the migration of American Blacks from the rural south to the urban north. Brown often selects powerful, evocative music that carries (at times overwhelms) the dancing, and in this case his use of a chilling slave auction chant ("Bid Em In") set the tone and was more potent than anything else in the piece. A lot happened, many costumes were worn, a sense of a journey taking place was suggested by a growing collection of luggage onstage. The six dancers carried an enormous amount of material and conveyed various characters, such as southern church ladies and beaten-down strivers. A sequence of solos for each of them (as the others stood around observing) displayed the stunning power of Brown's women, who are fearless and beautiful to watch. Brown bites off a lot in High Life, and gets bogged down in his ambitiousness, so that the piece's impact was more sporadic than cumulative.
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