Spirit Made Visible
Ronald K. Brown's company, Evidence, celebrates 25 years.
As a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, Ronald Kevin Brown was in perpetual motion. His mom joked that it was hard to get him dressed for preschool because he was always dancing around and wouldn’t stand still. By second grade, having seen a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brown was leading his cousins in making up dances in his family’s living room.
But for one reason or another, Brown never received serious dance training as a kid. He didn’t want to be the only boy in one class. At another point, his mother went into labor just when Ron was about to audition for a scholarship at Dance Theatre of Harlem. He took that as a sign that he should focus on being a good big brother. When he tried to apply to a performing arts junior high school, he was not accepted because he lived outside the district. “Something was always getting in the way,” Brown says.
These days nothing is getting in Brown’s way. He’s one of the hottest choreographers in contemporary dance. His kinetically exciting style—a fusion of African and Caribbean dance, hip hop and modern dance—has been embraced as much for its rich cultural context as for its overt spirituality. The company has performed all over the world, and Brown himself is in demand as a choreographer, teacher, and mentor.
At the American Dance Festival, where Brown has been a popular teacher as well as a performer, director Charles Reinhart says Brown has an uncanny connection with students. “He has such a strong, peaceful inner force. It comes out like the shepherd to the flock,” he says. “You just walk into the studio where he’s teaching, and before he starts you feel this aura coming from him. It’s so positive, so secure, that you already know it’s going to be a great class.”
This month Brown’s company, Evidence, A Dance Company, is celebrating its 25th year. The anniversary season at Harlem Stage looks back on Brown’s dances dating from 1996. For audiences, it’s a chance to experience a range of Brown’s work; for Brown, it’s an opportunity to gain perspective.
“All I have to do is look at the Ailey organization or talk to Donald McKayle, who had a company before I was born,” Brown said recently at his company’s home base, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. He also keeps in mind what Katherine Dunham, the iconic figure who pioneered the study of African and Caribbean dances, told him once at ADF: “Just don’t let us down.”
That’s “us” as in the black community.
Though he’ll turn 44 next month, Brown still has the trim, athletic look of a dancer. There’s no gray in the close-cropped beard or hesitation in his movements during rehearsals. Only recently has the choreographer begun taking himself out of his dances so he can focus on his dancers. But he still jumps back in if he has to.
“He’s trying to dance less, but he’s such an amazing dancer,” effuses Arcell Cabuag, who does double duty as a performer and the company’s associate artistic director. “His energy onstage is at 150 percent. He pushes you to take it to another level.”
Brown had decided, by high school, to become a storyteller via journalism. Performing was never far away, though. He got involved in theater and laughingly recalls that he was the guy doing cartwheels, splits, and other bits at the school talent show. But after graduating a year early from high school, he finally stepped into a dance studio. He’d taken a Graham class during the summer and was chagrined to discover he couldn’t get the hang of rounding his back in a contraction.
Suddenly journalism was put on the back burner. Brown turned his focus to dance, working nights and studying during the day with the renowned modern dancer Mary Anthony. As he began to develop his choreographic voice, those around him pushed him to consider using dance to tell the stories of his community. “I was hanging with a lot of writers and they were writing about our identity and legacy. One of them said, ‘Your work is in the dance,’ and I said, ‘Hmm.’ That gave birth to Evidence.”
Brown was 18 when the company gave its first concert in 1985 at the Mary Anthony Dance Studio. “It was with the idea that we must represent our families, our teachers, our ancestors, and that we must have a sense of responsibility.” When his first concert didn’t lead to instant bookings, he performed with Anthony’s company and Jennifer Muller/The Works and studied choreography with the legendary Bessie Schönberg.
“My first pieces were in street clothes, sometimes in sneakers. As I was learning different techniques, I was just moving and whatever came out came out,” he says. “Those early pieces were very physical. It was about how physical could I be while I told these stories?”
By the 1990s Brown had begun to explore a constantly expanding menu of movement from a range of cultures. His movement mélange draws from street dance, modern dance, capoeira, and other elements from the African diaspora. It’s a fusion that Brown says he arrives at naturally each time he begins to move.
His vocabulary is anchored in lightning-fast rhythmical footwork that mixes a samba-like step-ball-change with the high stepping of West African styles like manjani and linjin. And then there is the high-flying, darting move in which dancers hurtle through space, front leg bent, back leg stretched, arms flung back. Watching it, one feels the urge to move—as if the dancers’ energy has been sent out into the audience to jolt you out of your seat.
Dancer Tiffany Quinn says she learned quickly that the best way to pick up Brown’s “gumbo” approach was to stop trying to identify what he wanted the dancers to do. “The first time I took his class I thought, ‘This is crazy. What am I doing?’ I learned that at first, you have to just follow him,” says Quinn, who has been a company member since 2004. “Once you feel it in your body then you can break it down, pick it apart, and say, ‘Oh, OK. This is an arabesque turn into Afro-Cuban movement.’ When he’s creating, he goes into this zone and you just have to keep up with him. It’s really kind of cool.”
Cabuag recalls encountering Brown’s work at The Ailey School when he was a student there. “I wasn’t on the right floor for Ron’s workshop but I could hear the music. I asked my ballet teacher if I could use the restroom and went upstairs to that music and auditioned,” says Cabuag, who has been with Evidence since 1997. “There was a big sense of culture and spirituality. I felt drawn to it right away.”
While Brown has been lauded for his infectious, full-bodied fusion, his work has also been criticized by those who feel traditional dances should not be tampered with. But after a series of trips to the Ivory Coast beginning in 1995, the choreographer says, he began to see his work in a new light. There, he observed a range of styles and settings, from traditional dances at family gatherings to street dances at nightclubs. The dancers he met took fusion in stride. “They would say to me, ‘Why do you African Americans worry so much about what is authentic? When you touch it, it is something else. What we do in the village is different than what we do in the hotels for the tourists,’ ” Brown recalls. “I started to understand that as long as the integrity was intact, I could use different dance forms as resources. It was very freeing for me.”
Brown is the oldest of four children and has always taken his big brother role seriously. He would be the one to tell his siblings, “Make sure you come straight home from school.” Since his mother died 14 years ago, he has gotten even more involved. His nephew Ame Bender partly inspired Brown’s Two-Year-Old Gentlemen (2008). (According to an interview in Time Out New York, when Uncle Ron asked the then 3-year-old to be in the piece, the child replied, “Let me think about it.”) A celebration of brotherhood, Two-Year-Old Gentlemen will be graced with a cameo appearance by Ame, now 5, when it is performed at Harlem Stage (see sidebar).
His sense of responsibility has stretched to include faraway dance communities that he feels a kinship with. On the recent State Department–sponsored tour of Senegal, South Africa, and Nigeria, (see “Dance Matters,” January), Brown encouraged other artists to teach and respect their art form. “We have to support each other and then all the rest will come.”
Spirituality has remained a constant theme in Brown’s work—whether the choreographer is blessing his studio with sage, talking about how the ancestors speak to him, or using gospel music. Some of his works have overtly religious themes, like Grace, the tour de force he created for the Ailey company in 1999.
In Grace, a priestess figure leads a group of congregants upstage towards a shaft of light, suggesting deliverance to a state of grace.
Brown says he knows such overt spirituality is not in vogue in the contemporary dance world. But for him, there is no separation between the body and spirit, dance and prayer. “Spirituality is always with us and it’s always a part of my work,” he says. “For me, love and God are the same. If you feel love and are lifted up from my work, that’s great. That’s what it’s all about.”
E-Moves celebrates 25 years of Ronald K. Brown & Evidence
June 17–19, at Harlem Stage Gatehouse
Program 1: For You, Better Days, Incidents, and To Harm the Dangerous
Program 2: Two-Year-Old Gentleman and One Shot
In honor of Father’s Day, Ron Brown will conduct a workshop for boys and their elders on June 19. See www.harlemstage.org.
Watch video of Evidence at dancemagazine.com.
Karyn D. Collins is a freelance writer based in NJ.
Pictured: Juel Lane, Ronald K. Brown, and Arcell Cabuag in Brown's Grace. Photo by Basil Childers, Courtesy Evidence
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.