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The church of inconvenient questions

Are Ronald K. Brown's Come Ye and Redemption really rosy statements of faith?

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The morning after Ronald K. Brown's company, EVIDENCE, closed a concert of dance works including Grace, Come Ye, and the world premiere of Redemption at Page Auditorium, the Sunday New York Times featured an article on Russian conceptualist Alex Melamid's "Art Ministry" project. Pontificating from a lectern at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea, Melamid declared that artists are "the new clergy, the monks and nuns of our day." He later told the reporter, "Art is just another faith that promises immortal life and access to the spiritual."

For those curious about the possible intersections of faith and modern dance--or those who merely wished to see both works performed without the technical snafus that compromised their experience on Thursday's opening night--there was no shortage of religious moments on Saturday. Had Nina Simone's fervent musical memoir, Sunday in Savannah, played by itself on an empty stage, that nearly would have been enough to trigger one.

But Brown's company embodies that sharp, sweet chronicle in the opening of Come Ye as a community silhouetted at first in gray. As it unfolds, the people clearly define individual relationships, both with their faith and one another. Men go down on one knee with hands outstretched above their heads; a woman places one hand on her chest while the other hand is lifted as if in testimony. A third woman bows her head, her palms raised, her arms stretching out from both sides of her body, a picture of supplication.

Religious fervor is one thing, though. Nostalgia is quite another. If we succumb to the plangent images of humble worship at the front of Come Ye, we can lose sight of the degree to which Brown is ultimately critiquing religion--at least, in the mainstream.

It's true, even after a subsequent club dance tribute to Simone's Revolution (part 1). It features Brown and two dancers in a satiric back-up line to Shani Collins' exuberant solo, with raised fists and fighting stance directed at us in the audience.

An enigmatic stutter in the audio track--drum sequences that fade in and fade out twice, leaving the group standing on a white border surrounding a darkened stage--precedes Fela Kuti's Coffin for Head of State. In it, the unwary may only hear the frequently repeated lines in the chorus expounding "Jesus Christ our Lord" followed by the choral chant "Amen. Amen amen."

So far, so ecumenical. But the surrounding lyrics tell a different story:

Look Obasanjo! Before anything at all, he go dey shout:
Oh Lord! Oh Lord, almighty Lord!
And them go dey do all bad bad bad things
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen amen amen
Look Yar'Adua! Before anything at all, he go dey shout:
Allah Allah Allah Allah
And them go dey do bad bad bad things
Through Mohammed our Lord
Amen amen amen

The nurturing faith at the start of Come Ye is contrasted at the end with "moneymaking organizations" that put "we Africans in total confusion/Through Jesus Christ our Lord." Bridget Moore's offering in the penultimate sections of the work is a different altar call: actually a plea to take up arms against the oppressors, no matter which brand of religious hypocrisy they involve. As video footage superimposes South African marches against a number of historic revolutionaries, the dancers assemble in a tight vertical line at center stage. They shuffle-march in unison; elbows raised on either side, fists held at chest level.

On every fourth step, they push those elbows just a little bit forward.

After such praise and critique of faith and the ends to which it has been bent, Redemption must begin on contested ground. After Guinean drummer Mamadouba Camara's alert and easy rhythmic stroll, members of the group come out in ones and twos. They dance before a backdrop of a projected cloud, on a floor with a similar broken cloud pattern in projected lights.

After a trio of women establish sacred space--notably by pushing away from their bodies, which form a triangle in the back portion of the stage--Cheryl Boyce Taylor's voice invokes injustice from the darkness, resonant with authority:

Africa painted on your forehead
the science of your life numb
almost corpselike before me
dying while still in my warm grasp

a big fecal ship
opens her mud-white jaws
she takes your good eye
your child
that blue essential laugh

she takes your drum
obsidian eyes
your son's foreskin
your mother's thin blue milk

father's neck cut down from
trees
they are still killing black boys
in Mississippi.

Taylor's vivid literary imagery and an arresting vocal performance competed with the movement onstage for the audience's attention on Thursday night. At Saturday's performance, the schism was hardly noticeable. Perhaps it was a dissonance, peculiar to modern dance, from a poet's moving words spoken by so still a figure on the stage. In Brown's lyrical interpretation, a woman giving one man and then another a hand, a lift up and out, morphed into a procession of healers, carrying the bodies of others forward until they were once again sufficient to walk for themselves.

Brown never concretely answers the question of how we get to redemption. In a final, tantalizing sequence, an arc of dancers, men and women, form a semicircle that wheels and opens in the four cardinal directions. After Taylor intoned the words, "There are doors flung open/In palaces/We have never prayed in ... We have made a home for you," in the center of the semicircle, Bridget Moore throws her hands up, her face ecstatic. If we know nothing more at this point, we know that, for Brown, redemption involves the whole community and is not an individual quest. EndBlock

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