writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Feel Good Dancing

Walking Out the Dark; Better Days: Sole; High Life, Come Ye
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
Napa Valley Opera House
April 3, 2004

By Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 12 April 2004

The only (just barely) Bay Area appearance of Ronald K. Brown’s company to the southern end of the Napa Valley this season, offered an opportunity to see the much talked-about but little seen Brown company and also assess a newly restored theater’s potential for dance presentation.

First the venue. The Napa Valley Opera House, built in 1880 and restored, one would like to say, to its former glory in 2003, is no architectural gem. With an Italianate painted brick front, the 500-seat theater is one of those second story, all purpose auditoriums that served for opera as well every other kind of community event. It is a pleasant enough space with balcony and orchestra seating. The remodeling, tastefully even elegantly done, included sloping the floor to improve sightlines. But the stage is small and two permanent doors on either side restrict the wing space. Still, judging from the buzz overheard during a pre-performance dinner at a local restaurant and the crowd that filled this downtown theater on a Saturday night, the Opera House has already become a much welcome addition to a town better known for wine and cheese than live performance.

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence has yet to be presented in a major theater in the immediate San Francisco area. Except, for a one-night appearance at the 100-seat ODC/ Theater in San Francisco in 2001, Brown’s company has been moving around the edges—Stanford, Monterey, Davis and now Napa. It’s an odd absence, given the company’s proven ability to draw audiences.

Seeing them perform on what is a glorified high school auditorium stage, brought out both Evidence’s indisputable assets: a company of extraordinary dancers, particularly in its women performers, who have made Brown’s vocabulary their own. What Brown has done is remarkable. He has spun connective threads between Pan African dance elements into a language whose original dialects survive but that now speaks with a contemporary urban sensibility. These dancers perform with a skill, commitment and expressive power that rival some of best companies’ in the country—no matter what genre or style.

But the evening also showed Brown’s weaknesses. He now has the language but he doesn’t use it with enough urgency. Too many of the pieces looked as though they could be part of one of those one-note “folkloric” travelogues that aim to give audiences insight into the other but don’t really expand anybody’s understanding of anything. However, they do send everybody home happy.

Probably it is a sign of our spirituality-deprived lives, that Brown’s expression of yearning for liberation from enslavement—either literal or figurative—resonates as much as it does with contemporary audiences. We want to believe that the journey towards freedom—whatever that means—which is at the heart of Brown’s dance making, is possible. It’s such an American impulse. It’s what sent the first and every other settler to these shores, and it’s what kept an enslaved people alive beyond any rational explanation.

At the center of Napa’s program were excerpts from Walking Out the Dark, which, when first seen at Stanford, had come across as a powerful, tension-filled movement conversation about confrontation and reconciliation. Beyond being personal acts, as Brown’s poem suggested, the piece’s groundedness in fast and complex footwork, its extraordinary use of the torso and the give and take between its performers, reminded one of the African rituals about confession and forgiveness rituals that Desmond Tutu’s attempts in South Africa brought to the world’s attention. Napa’s crowded space choked off the work’s expansive breath, leaving only pleasant enough, though innocuous encounters between the expertly dancing Camille Brown, Shani Collins, Arcell Cabuag and Juel Lane. It was even difficult to see how, if at all, the choreographer’s introductory monologue related to the dance.

Better Days: Sole, a 1998 solo, danced by the choreographer in billowing white pants, showcased Brown as a still expressive dancer. This was a simple, short portrayal of loneliness which made good use of stillness and abrupt motion. Maybe most interesting was Brown’s use of the human back. Whether curled in a crouch, ready to explode, or simply standing and facing away from us, checked by embracing arms, Brown made a good point about the potential for eloquence of an often neglected part of the anatomy.

The evening opened with the episodic High Life, whose eight short scenes featured his women dancers as the extraordinary performers they are. But the piece’s choreography went nowhere. Brown assembled a truly excellent collage of music, both Western and African, but he didn’t make a case for the why and how of the journey from the pain of slavery to the vacuousness of Saturday night honky tonks and the salvation of African culture. This just seemed too romanticized a vision. Also the music told us more than the choreography ever did.

Come Ye was conceived as an homage to the music of Nina Simone (with additional contributions by his frequent collaborator Fela Anikulapo Kuti). Paying homage to an artist or a period is tricky. Imitating, or simply calling up, won’t do. This is not the seventies, and Simone made her own case well enough. What was needed is Brown’s own perspective on the music and the time. And here the choreographer succeeded but imperfectly.

Brown knows how to set up oppositions between individuals, between slow and fast, between expansiveness and compression. Some of these formal tools were used quite effectively; some of them however, look as if taken out of an how-to choreography handbook.

The juxtaposition between individual expression—a solo for a woman dancer against a single bass, comes to mind—and the linearity or the unisons was particularly striking. The sense of stop and go injected a welcome note of communal reflection and contemplation but the use of the black power salute and the collage of news video, interspersed with hero images, probably was a mistake.

The most effective moment came in the work’s final moment. The faded images, against which the dancers had been but additional shadows, faded off the screen. We were left with a single vertical line of dancer in black suits. Unified, strong, they looked unstoppable.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 13
11 April 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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