Friday, Jan. 22, 9 p.m. Evidence, A Dance Company, weaves and whirls and pulses on stage in the ’62 Center for Theater and Dance. The dancers ride a tide that seems to flow intimately between themselves and their eight fellow company members – one borne of a deep, long-cultivated love both for each other and for their work.
I’m sitting just off stage left in the wings, my back against the wall and knees to my chest. A few feet away, Ronald K. Brown, founder and artistic director of the company, grooves to the Stevie Wonder tune oozing through the theater’s speakers. He notices me watching him and walks towards me. He’s deliberate, but not intense – rather, he seems, as always, filled with a certain unremitting lightness, an irrepressible ease of being. Standing above me, he reaches his hands downwards, and I raise mine. He presses his palms to mine and smiles.
Over the past week, I, along with several other members of Kusika and other people from the community surrounding Williamstown, have spent a total of about 12 hours rehearsing with Ron to be part of a piece titled “On Earth Together,” a kinetic meditation on “being a compassionate global citizen,” as Brown puts it, set to ten Stevie Wonder songs. Over this week, I came to very profoundly admire Brown both artistically and personally.
Brown’s movement is wholly unique in today’s dance world. He melds West African dance styles with modern dance, giving forth an aesthetic that feels electrifying and familiar all at once, like something long lost that’s now been unearthed in an entirely new setting and context. When he demonstrates his choreography, his motions look deceptively casual; however, as he observes and corrects others, he has a hawk’s eye for stuck-out ribs or sluggish footwork. Tucked within his apparent freedom of movement is a necessary central technique. Ultimately, Brown’s choreographic brand very much reflects the way he is: deliberate, grounded, radically sincere, full of rhythm and flavor and overflowing with a gentle joie de vivre and steadfast spirituality.
He is very open with his faith, often referencing God, “our” ancestors, “up there,” angels, unconditional love, etc. in communicating the intention behind certain movements. Perhaps as a result of this faith (or perhaps not – I don’t mean to presume), Brown is also very open with himself and with the love he is eager to give to all those around him. Perhaps the best example of this comes from a master class Brown taught one afternoon, in which a very small, maybe four-year-old boy taking the class grew frustrated and began to cry. Brown beckoned both the boy and the boy’s slightly older brother up to the front of the class and addressed the rest of his teaching of the particular sequence at hand directly to the two boys. To watch him interact with anyone, really, is almost surreal; for a few moments, he’ll put one person 100 percent at the center of his world. Then he’ll go off to enrich another life, and another, like a bee alighting on every flower it can.
Prior to Evidence’s performance last Friday evening, I’d only ever seen Brown dance alongside me and my fellow dancers in the studio, clad neck-to-ankle in humble black sweats. Sitting in the wings off stage left in the ’62 Center that evening, though, I was finally able to watch Brown on a wide stage, under brilliant lights, in costume, dancing for an audience. It struck me then that these different settings made no difference – the Brown you saw on stage was so true, so honestly the one that I’d just begun to come to know over the past week. Suddenly, an exchange I’d overheard earlier that evening took on a more profound tone: Just as Brown was about to head on stage during rehearsal, one of the dancers of Evidence told him, “Dance, Ron!” He rolled his eyes as the dancer laughed, having elicited the reaction she wanted from him, then sprung into motion. Sitting in the wings later, though, watching Brown the Performer overlap perfectly with Brown the Man, I realized that it was as if she’d told him: “Live, Ron!” For it seems as if for him, those two verbs – to dance, to live – are indistinguishable. His reaction becomes clear, then; With that eye-roll, he meant, at least on some level, to say: “Dance? How could I not?”