Choreographer Ronald K. Brown creates “soul-to-soul conversation through the body”
By Christina Campodonico
The works of choreographer Ronald K. Brown are known for evoking spiritual elements, but when asked if he identifies with any particular religion Brown prefers not to put a label on his spirituality.
If he has any faith at all, it is in dance.
Raised in 1960s/’70s Brooklyn by a devout Christian family, Brown takes a more theistic approach to dance-making these days.
“When people get bogged down in this kind of didactic way of labeling people I kind of — I don’t protest — but I think it’s less important than us saying that there is The Most High, and people from different places call him different things,” says Brown, whose work is also inspired by African dance stylings.
“I think that’s why in dance I try to look at what are the different spiritual dances from around the world that talk about putting God first and having him come through your body to make connection with people who are in the audience. For me, it’s a kind of heart-to-heart or soul-to-soul conversation through the body.”
To critics, Brown, whose New York-based dance company Ronald K. Brown/Evidence performs at the Broad Stage for a two-night run this weekend, always seems to have a divine touch.
“Brown takes his audiences to church,” writes the Boston Globe. “A sense of grounded spirituality and abiding humanism…runs through his dances like a deep vein.”
“Always the daze of pleasure as the movement washes over you like a wave thick with sand,” says the Financial Times. “As for the theme, ever the spiritual path.”
True to the nature of his art, the choreographer is often guided by some sort of spirit when creating his works.
At the time of creating 2002’s “Come Ye,” which the company will perform this weekend, Brown was conflicted about the country’s military involvement in Afghanistan after seeing young men in uniform playing Game Boys at the airport while waiting for their marching orders. The emotional dissonance resolved itself when Brown heard Nina Simone’s “Come Ye” come on in his apartment.
“I went, ‘Ahh! That’s how I feel,’” says Brown. “In the song she says [that for] everyone who is dedicated to fighting for your life, it’s time for us to learn how to pray. … It was kind of a call for prayer warriors. It just made me think of all the people throughout history who talked about creative protest. What happened to all those lessons, right? Gandhi, Dr. King, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti. What happened to all of those messages that people gave us for how to live as a peaceful citizen?”
Inspiration for 2014’s “The Subtle One,” also on the program, arrived when Brown discovered that the phrase is a sobriquet for Allah and then uncovered a plaque that a passed away friend had given him with the lines of an Alan Harris poem inscribed upon it: “so subtle are the wings of angels/ That you may not realize/ They’ve come and gone, except/ That innerly remains a glowing/ Which seems just as/ good as knowing.”
The closely aligned coincidence ignited an insight for Brown, who thought, “Were the subtle ones angels walking on earth? Are they ancestors walking around?”
“Grace,” shaped by Duke Ellington’s jazzy hymnal “Come Sunday,” also takes on spiritual subjects. But Brown thinks of “Grace,” which was commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1999, as more of a “thank you” to the company’s late founder, the legendary African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who first inspired Brown to consider a career in modern dance.
Brown remembers his world changing after seeing the Ailey company perform “Revelations,” Ailey’s seminal modern dance work on the grief, joy and hope of the African-American spirit, in second grade.
“It was amazing and I went home and I made a dance,” recalls Brown. “And I thought, ‘Oh you can make a dance about church and God and people.’ It just kind of blew my mind.”
And inspired him to envision himself as a modern dancer and choreographer. Up until that point he had thought he would become a ballet dancer, like the African-American dance pioneer Arthur Mitchell, who broke racial barriers by becoming a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and later founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem. There was just one slight problem on Brown’s journey to dance greatness.
“As a little boy I loved to dance, but I was kind of afraid, intimidated to take dance classes,” says Brown. “There were too many girls.”
Brown eventually outgrew his boyhood aversion to girl cooties, but there was another crisis of faith, so to speak. If he was unwilling to dance with girls, could he then dance in God’s house? Again more conflict: He could dance in his grandparents’ church in North Carolina, but not on the Sabbath in New York.
“The pastor down there said, ‘When you come to the door we expect you to dance.’ But in Brooklyn, the family church, we weren’t allowed to dance at all,’ says Brown.
Then another hang up at age 12. His very pregnant mother was about to take Brown to audition for the Dance Theatre of Harlem when nature took its course.
“We got to the door of our apartment and she went into labor,” recalls Brown. “So that’s when I was like, ‘Okay forget it.’” He had to take on the responsibility of being a big brother after all. But Brown couldn’t quite forget about the art form that had captivated him so much as a child. The summer before entering college on a journalism scholarship, he changed course, deciding to finally explore his long-held fascination with dance.
“I said, ‘Ah, Mom, can I give up this scholarship and figure this dance thing out?’ And she said, ‘I told you so. Get a job and learn how to dance,” remembers Brown.
Brown took classes at Mary Anthony Dance Studio in Manhattan, but frustrated by what he saw as post-modern dance’s disinterest in “real people” during the ‘80s, he started Evidence. He was 19. The company just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, but there is still more good work to be done, says Brown.
“I have colleagues who say, ‘I’m done. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. The struggle is too much. The challenges are too great.’ So I’m grateful I get to travel with the company, still share the work,” he says.
You could say that he feels like a chosen one. Brown recalls meeting Ailey, his original inspiration, at a rehearsal once when he was 21 years old.
“Mr. Ailey came and sat next to me. And he said, ‘You one of mine?’ I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Ailey, I didn’t go through the school, but yes, I’m one of yours,’” recounts Brown. “It was a really beautiful thing. I was grateful that he sat next to me in the first place … someone who was afraid to take dance classes.”
Yet for Ronald K. Brown there’s still time to spread the gospel of dance.
“When people leave and they feel like they have been touched and that anything is possible, I think that is the purpose of the work for me,” says Brown. “I feel like the world needs it.”
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence A Dance Company performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (March 25 and 26) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. Tickets are $40 to $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.