When the great intersectional feminist writer Audre Lorde asked a question, you wanted to answer, but Ronald K. Brown didn't have one yet.
"She'd always ask her audiences, 'Are you doing your work,'" the choreographer says. "And I was seventeen or eighteen years old, asking, 'What is my work? What is my work?'"
It was the early eighties in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Brown was torn. He'd been hanging out with a group of writers he calls "big brothers, creating works about legacy, saying, 'We need to leave proof that we were here.'" It made sense; until then, Brown had been a writer himself: a playwright, poet, and reporter who'd planned on studying journalism in college.
He remembers, "When I said, 'I have to start learning how to dance,' they said, 'Who's going to tell your grandmother's stories?'" But within two years, Brown would have his answer for those writing friends and for Lorde as well. Dance could tell those tales, and many more besides.
"We could represent our families, our teachers, our ancestors; we could bring our legacy to the stage," Brown says. In 1985, at age nineteen, he started his own company, EVIDENCE. The success of his efforts can be measured in the dozens of repertory works he's created since, not to mention commissions from companies including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which opens the ADF season this week. On June 28, that success will be quantified when Brown receives the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement, which comes with $50,000, the largest prize in modern dance.
Rather than finding his place in modern dance, Brown had to create one, and it has been inhabited by many following in his footsteps. When he began in the mid-eighties, postmodern dance in New York placed a premium on theory, deconstructing the framework and practice of dance. Brown didn't see "real people on stage," he says, or much of what he considered real dance at the time. The love of movement, rhythm, and musicality seemed taboo. "It was an exploration of the body's physicality, but absent of emotion," he says. "And I couldn't do that."
Brown also perceived a profound disconnect between the people on stage and the people in the audience. Historically, dance involved difference, if not in class, race, or social status, then certainly in physical technique and development. The idealized dancer's body, as the local dance artist Daniel B. Coleman Chávez recently observed in the INDY, did not reflect the forms of African-American people. Brown wanted viewers to be able to identify with his performers. To do that, they'd have to see people with similar physical traits.
"I wanted them to say, 'That man is built like me; that woman is built like my aunt,'" Brown says.
Audiences also needed to see more people of color. Brown wanted stories from his world on stage: the tales of African-American families told by dancers who could evince their humanity.
"I wanted people to see the evidence of themselves and the evidence of our human condition," Brown says, explaining his company's name. In 1990, he was accepted as a young choreographer at ADF and began teaching at the festival the following year. By 1995, EVIDENCE was on the mainstage with Dirt Road, a generational family drama that dealt with "the brutal realities of poverty, danger, and injustice, in lives that somehow remained spiritually resilient," according to The New York Times. An energetic duet called "March" in his subsequent work, Lessons—which audiences will see when EVIDENCE comes to Reynolds Industries Theater at the end of June—was set to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. instead of music. In 1998, Incidents depicted slave narratives, and Better Days celebrated the glories of gay black nightclub life.
Then Brown's concerns expanded and became more global. Upside Down considered the corruption in Afropop legend Fela Kuti's native Nigeria; High Life probed parallels between the Great Migration in the U.S. and the move of West African youth from villages to developing cities in the seventies. The 2000s saw an increased emphasis in spirituality, but not sentimentality, in Brown's work.
"In [the attacks of September] 2001 I was reminded that my job is to show people the spiritual connections of dancers from around the world," he says. Brown infused spiritual traditions from West Africa, Cuba, and the Caribbean into those of the African-American church. Walking Out the Dark, a frank, internally focused quartet, forced its characters to assess their possibly irreconcilable differences with a mix of sacred dance from Benin, Cuba, and the Ivory Coast. Come Ye celebrated and critiqued the roles of religion in society with the music of Nina Simone and Kuti, calling for a different sort of warrior to wage peace in a threatened community.
After successive works engaged titular concepts of Redemption and Grace (the latter a commission by Ailey's company as a response to his masterwork, Revelations) and texts from the Book of Lamentations and Psalms, Brown has more recently explored the orishas, the elemental spirits of the Yoruba religion. On Earth Together, also excerpted in the upcoming ADF concert, uses African and Cuban dance movements evoking Ogun, who discerns and cuts a way through the world with his machete, and Oshun, a force of love. A current work in progress, New Conversations, considers Oxóssi, the hunter who feeds the people.
"I think of it almost like contemporary folklore," Brown says. "The stories and ideas show us how we should treat each other, and how we should ideally be." It's an apt direction for someone who sees his work of more than three decades and counting as "bringing love, bringing spirit, involved in the world, to the concert stage."
BYRON WOODS'S TOP FIVE ADF SHOWS
SHEN WEI DANCE ARTS (DPAC, Jun. 16 & 17)
Samuel Beckett despised opera but wrote a libretto (of sorts) for composer Morton Feldman, who didn't much like words with music. Shen Wei adds one-of-a-kind choreography and bizarre costumes to their perverse collaboration. (See story, p. 16.)
ANNE PLAMONDON (The Rubenstein Arts Center, Jun. 30 & Jul. 1)
Though madness has fueled more cheap melodramas than I'll ever forget, we've heard that Anne Plamondon's first solo work is ethnography as choreography: a careful exploration of her father's struggle with mental illness.
ROSIE HERRERA DANCE THEATRE (Reynolds Industries Theater, Jul. 6 & 7)
After a placing a 2013 workshop version of Make Believe on ADF students, Herrera's company applies her off-the-wall dance theater sketches, which build toward inquiries on the human condition, to a meditation on love and belief.
TERE O'CONNOR (Reynolds Industries Theater, Jul. 10 & 11)
It's tempting to call Tere O'Connor an heir apparent to Merce Cunningham, but whereas he explored the aesthetic possibilities of human movement, O'Connor is more interested in what dance really communicates versus what we believe it does. Thinking caps on.
CAMILLE A. BROWN (The Carolina Theatre, Jul. 13 & 14)
After Mr. ToL E. RAncE, a 2013 critique of black representation in mass media, Brown has staged corrective works like ink, which will be excerpted at ADF in Wonderous Women. The piece reasserts the rights of African Americans to define their identities. (See story, p. 19.)