November 30, 2001

Ronald K. Brown and company in Upside Down.
Courtesy Ron Brown/Evidence

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence

Byham Theatre
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

November 30?December 1, 2001

Reviewed by Karen Dacko

Ronald K. Brown, artistic director of Evidence, told audiences in a post-performance talk that his emotionally powerful Walking Out the Dark (2001) springs from poems and letters he wrote after his mother’s death in 1996. The contemporary work for three men and one woman, which premiered at the American Dance Festival in June, focuses on a family’s need to mourn and reconcile. However, the appropriately sparse piece, which literally buries the cast in fifty pounds of dirt that tumbles from the ceiling (“the earth of grief”), acquired deeper connotations for Brown following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

On September 5, Brown’s troupe launched the last “On Stage” series at New York City’s now decimated Twin Towers. Dark was not on that program. “The Towers were our backdrop,” says Brown, recalling the audience’s warm reception. After the attacks, he received numerous phone calls: ” ?Your program was the last time I was there,’ they told me. I felt like a hole had been bored into my chest.”

Brown realized that Dark, with its contemplative mien and graphic imagery, would be overwhelming for his dancers and audiences in the days following the attacks. He shelved it until the Pittsburgh Dance Council concerts, returning it to active repertoire with a reduced cast but unchanged content. The effect was dramatically focused, architecturally uncluttered, and visually compelling.

Says dancer Diedre N. Dawkins, “It makes you go to a place you don’t want to go to?and look in the mirror.”

Brown says that in performance, he mourns those lost in the attack, emphasizes family connections, and questions both the government’s truthfulness and his beliefs. Parallels to the recovery effort are unavoidable. “We are these spirits buried in this rubble, and we can ascend,” he says.

Following a brief voiceover, the curtain rose to dirgelike music on four figures with bowed heads. They stood in a spacious circle, each initially interacting with the dancer directly opposite. In an opening sequence, Dawkins, in the spotlight, lay on her back, one arm extended overhead (a pose others later assumed); after rising, she executed a solid grand rond de jambe, eventually returning to place as Brown advanced to perform these movements. Elsewhere the dancers reprised a reverent kneeling posture, accompanied by face-covering gestures, but it was Brown who most richly imbued these movements with drama and palpable emotion. Also memorable were both Arcell Cabuag’s repeated approach to a detached Daryl Spiers, who remained unyielding to his supplication for forgiveness, and a contraction-based solo for Dawkins. While birdcalls introduced limited spatial exploration, the dance?which projected a sense of timelessness?was primarily circular, until the bodies unexpectedly aligned and the gentle shower of dirt descended.

In Upside Down (1998), which showcased the strength and sinuous lines of its six dancers, the brisk African dance movements were directed downward initially, as bodies sloped forward with relaxed knees and widely separated feet. The men’s torsos were controlled and graceful, as their arms continuously sliced through space. Following a diagonal processional in which Cabuag was borne by the ensemble, focus shifted upward, but the dancers’ bent knees kept the weight grounded. The repetitive vocabulary was punctuated by wrist rotations, exaggerated footsteps, and upward curvatures of outstretched arms. The piece effectively concluded with a rerun of this funeral procession, cleverly switched to the opposite diagonal.

In eight fast-paced vignettes, High Life (2000) traced the northern migration and social evolution of African people into the American tapestry. With a pastiche score, prop manipulation, and quick, era-defining costume changes, the work was provocative (especially the slave auction sequence) and likeable, allowing the dancers to display their dramatic capabilities. Best was a jazzy nightclub scene where Dawkins, a charismatic mover, was the featured vamp, with sashaying hips and jaunty shoulders. Later, backache predominated as elderly ladies, with spines curved, hands pressed above hip level, and derrieres jutting, amusingly hobbled.