This year's American Dance Festival offers a wealth of performances by African-American choreographers. The ADF has already brought the Triangle Garth Fagan Dance and has showcased Rennie Harris Puremovement's inner-city Romeo and Juliet, "Rome & Jewels," which drew thunderous applause, appreciative whoops and "Amens" from the balcony. It was an audience reaction that's one for the festival record books.
Next week, ADF turns to a more introspective work by an African-American choreographer and dancer, with the world premiere of "Walking out the Dark," by Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE. Like "Rome & Jewels," with its story of two warring gang-families, "Walking" also deals with family, but focuses on a clan internally divided and in search of healing.
Brown, a 37-year-old New Yorker, is no stranger to the area. Though he came of age in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the Big Apple, he ventured below the Mason-Dixon Line in the summers to visit grandparents in the Hoke County town of Raeford, N.C. Putting on his latest work at ADF symbolizes a homecoming for Brown. He is a longtime member of the ADF faculty, and in 1991, he received its Scripps/ADF Humphrey-Weidman-Limón Fellowship, an award for up-and-coming choreographers. The ADF honor is just one of a long string of accolades. He was also awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to study dance in West Africa, an area that he sees as a fount of his creativity. Brown recently talked to The Independent via phone from New York.
The Independent: For those who may not know much about EVIDENCE, how and why did you start the company?
Ronald K. Brown: It was founded in 1985 and incorporated in 1996. I was 19 years old, and I started it because I wanted to make work that reflected my family and cultural upbringing, rather than coming and working for somebody else's company. As for the name, all of us are evidence or proof of what has gone into us.
The piece you'll be performing at ADF was commissioned by the festival. How did you secure that commission?
I came into ADF as a young choreographer in 1991, and worked almost every year, except 2000, when the company's schedule was too busy. I had the piece in mind and was looking for champions. Well, supporters and people who had a personal connection to my work. The Reinharts came to the table in terms of the commission and doing it at a large venue, at Page Auditorium.
Also, "Walking out the Dark" is about the tradition of going into exile for spiritual contemplation. It's not a happy, circus crowd-pleaser. It's kind of deep.
You've become known for creating complex, compelling historical and cultural narratives through dance. For instance, in "High Life," you compare the migration of blacks north to the contemporary migration of Africans from their rural homes to big cities. What type of narrative should we be looking for in this world premiere?
This is more of a personal piece. It takes place in a mourning room, and the conversations, the dance are generally between two people. The vocabulary is two dancers talking to one another. It's basically written as letters between brother, sister and mother. And it's like these people have been sent away to apologize for how they have lived. It's all about obstacles in the way of love. "Walking out the Dark" is sparse, and different from what I've become known for: the fusion of West Africa into American dance. It starts with someone dying, someone passing in the collective.
But that sense of apology and a need for community forgiveness is, at its roots, very African. Do you sense that in African-American communities?
In Africa, there's a sensibility of interdependence and accountability, and sometimes we miss that being here in the West. We don't have that; we have a more European-like life where the goal is to leave your family. It's easier to leave your family. Whereas the folks that support ballet may have a family coat of arms, most African-Americans don't have that. In my family, there's a desperation to stay together, to stay close. Here we see the young people who have bought so much into the "bling, bling," the designer wear, the ego, that they don't care about anything.
A former Alvin Ailey dancer told me that Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE is so unusual because it's so diverse. Your company really seems to resonate with audiences who traditionally have not watched modern dance.
We were in Raleigh in November, and a drummer came to me and said, "Brother Ronald, how come when I see you, I feel like I can dance." I feel that black people recognize us. I think that in modern dance, the thing that is most important is the European, the ballet, the line, and for black dancers, trying to prove we can do that. But because of where I fall on the timeline, I am able to make West Africa my base. We call on our ballet and modern training. And people who are concerned with liberation or their own story, they can see African Americans start off on the auction block and end in a place where we are free.
Is there something about African-American culture, admittedly a catch-all term, that is expressed so well in dance?
The thing I love about our culture is that it's impossible to separate it. When you see anything you want to talk about, it has the emotion of it, the structure of it. You have this truth, this spirit that has a rhythm. Dance is where the spirit is free to speak. The job as an artist is to let your spirit speak. In some dance forms, if there is a story there, that's a bad thing.
What type of reaction has your work, which speaks freely about race, received in the mainstream dance world?
Well, in Richmond, I stepped out to watch a section of a piece, and an older white man got up to leave. But he was waiting in the lobby. Some people may feel displaced. Not too long ago, people would whisper about culture-specific dance. (It was also a no-no to do dance with text.) When I see rolling-on-the-floor-dance, Trisha Brown or postmodern dance, that's culture-specific dance. I'm just obeying the ancestors, so my brothers and sisters can come and see themselves.