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
Many choreographers use spoken word to enhance their dance performances. But the Campfire Poetry Movement video series has found success with a reverse scenario: Monticello Park Productions creates short art films that often use dance to illustrate iconic poems.
It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:
When I was just a little peanut, my siblings and I used to find scrap paper and use them as tickets to our makeshift dance performances at family gatherings. They were more like circus shows, really, where my brother was the ringmaster, and my sisters and I were animals; we dove through imaginary flaming hoops and showcased our best tightrope acts with the suspense of plummeting into an endless pit of sorrows. This was my first introduction to the beauty of movement as a way of communicating.
Photo by Lindsay Linton
So you're on layoff—or, let's be real, you just don't feel like going to the studio—and you decide you're going to take class from home. Easy enough, right? All you need is an empty room and some music tracks on your iPhone, right?
Wrong. Anyone who has attempted this feat can tell you that taking class at home—or even just giving yourself class in general—is easier said than done. But with the right tools, it's totally doable—and can be totally rewarding.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Choreographer Ronald K. Brown sees himself as a weaver—of movement, but more importantly, of stories. "When I started my company Evidence 33 years ago, I needed to make a space for what I thought of as evidence—work that tells stories, so that when people saw the work, they would see a reflection or evidence of themselves onstage," says Brown, now 51. "That was my mission, my purpose."
Fast-forward to today: Evidence has become a mainstay in the modern dance world and Brown is now considered a vanguard among choreographers fusing Western contemporary dance with movement from the African diaspora, including popular dance and traditions from West African cultures like Senegalese sabar.
She may not be the first choreographer to claim that movement is her first language, but when Crystal Pite says it, it's no caveat: She's as effective and nuanced a communicator as the writers who often inspire her dances.
Her globally popular Emergence, for instance, was provoked in part by science writer Steven Johnson's hypotheses; The Tempest Replica refracts and reimagines Shakespeare. Recently, her reading list includes essays by fellow Canadian Robert Bringhurst, likewise driven by a ravenous, wide-ranging curiosity.
General director of Spoleto Festival USA since 1995 and, for two decades (1998-2017), the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden has an internationalist's point of view on the arts—expansive, curious, informed by the cultural wealth that the world has to offer.
He is the son of an American diplomat and grew up moving from place to place—Cyprus, Israel, Canada, Italy—until eventually setting of for Yale to study Art History. After visiting the Spoleto festival in Italy as a young man, and working there while he was still an undergraduate, he very quickly realized what he wanted to: direct festivals. And that's what he has done for most of the last quarter century.
No, she isn't like other artistic directors, and that's not just because she's a woman. Lourdes Lopez, who's led Miami City Ballet since 2012, doesn't want this to be taken the wrong way, but as for her vision? She doesn't really have one.
"I just want good dancers and a good company and good rep and an audience and a theater—let us do what the art form is supposed to be doing," she says. "I don't mean that in a flippant way. It's just how I've always approached it."
Paul Taylor cultivated many brilliant dancers during his 60-plus-year career, but seldom have any commanded such a place of authority and artistry as Michael Trusnovec. He models what it takes to become a great Taylor dancer: weight of movement, thorough grasp of style, deep concentration, steadfast partnering, complete dedication to the choreography and a nuanced response to the music.
Trusnovec can simultaneously make choreography sexy and enlightened, and he can do it within one phrase of movement. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has excelled in roles as diverse as the tormented and tormenting preacher in Speaking in Tongues; the lyrical central figure—one of Taylor's own sacred roles—in Aureole; the dogged detective in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); and the corporate devil in Banquet of Vultures.
Based on the novel by Roland Topor and the 1976 Roman Polanski film, The Tenant follows a man who moves into an apartment that's haunted by its previous occupant (Simone, played by ABT's Cassandra Trenary) who committed suicide. Throughout the show, the man—Trelkovsky, played by Whiteside—slowly transforms into Simone, eventually committing suicide himself.
But some found the show's depiction of a trans-femme character to be troubling. Whether the issues stem from the source material or the production's treatment of it, many thought the end result reinforced transphobic stereotypes about mental illness. We gathered some of the responses from the dance community:
Update: Raffaella Stroik's body was found near a boat ramp in Florida, Missouri on Wednesday morning. No information about what led to the death is currently available. Our thoughts are with her friends and family.
Raffaella Stroik, a 23-year-old dancer with the Saint Louis Ballet, went missing on Monday.
Her car was found with her phone inside in a parking lot near a boat ramp in Mark Twain Lake State Park—130 miles away from St. Louis. On Tuesday, the police began an investigation into her whereabouts.
Stroik was last seen at 10:30 am on Monday at a Whole Foods Market in Town and Country, a suburb of St. Louis. She was wearing an olive green jacket, a pink skirt, navy pants with white zippers and white tennis shoes.
Whether or not you see yourself choreographing in your future, you can gain a lot from studying dance composition. "Many companies ask you to generate your own content. Choreography is more collaborative now," says Autumn Eckman, a faculty member at the University of Arizona.
Look beyond the rehearsal studio, and you'll find even more benefits to having dancemaking skills. "Being a thinker as well as a mover is what creates a sustainable career," says Iyun Ashani Harrison, who teaches at Goucher College. "Viewing dance with a developed eye and being able to speak about what you're seeing is valuable whether you're a dancer, a choreographer, an artistic director or a curator."
Succeeding in composition class often has more to do with attitude than aptitude. Above all, you need "a willingness to play along and explore," says Kevin Predmore, who teaches at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program. "You have to let go of the desire to create something extraordinary, and instead be curious."
Egg Drop Soup's "Partying Alone" video turns a run-of-the-mill dance team audition on its head with a vision of female power from a mature woman. The panel is stunned when a gray-haired, red-lipsticked 80-something tosses aside her cane and lets loose, flipping her hair—and the bird.
Egg Drop Soup - Partying Alone (Official music video)
Take a second look at that head-banging grandma—she is none other than renowned dance researcher and anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna. An affiliate research professor in anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, the author of numerous scholarly books and an expert witness in trials for exotic dancers, she has spent her career getting us to think about dance's relationship to society. Hanna, 82, said she hadn't performed since college when she got a call from a music video producer, who caught a video of her dancing with her 13-year-old grandson. The rockers of Egg Drop Soup loved her energy and flew her out to Los Angeles for a day-long video shoot. We spoke to Hanna about the experience.
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
Tired of the typical turkey and stuffing? For Thanksgiving this year, try something different with these personal recipes that dancers have shared with Dance Magazine. The ingredients are packed with dancer-friendly nutrients to help you recover from rehearsals and fuel up for the holiday performances ahead.
If anyone raises an eyebrow at your unconventional choices, just remind them that dancers are allowed to take some artistic license!
A dancer once contacted me because he was devastated after walking in on his girlfriend with another man. While he was distressed about ending the relationship, he was most concerned about a major performance coming up. They had to dance a romantic pas de deux. When I met with them together, she was afraid he would drop her and he didn't want to look lovingly in her eyes. My role was to help them find ways to make magic onstage and keep their personal difficulties offstage. They ended up dancing to rave reviews.
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
When Jan Fabre's troupe Troubleyn presents his Mount Olympus: To glorify the cult of tragedy (a 24 hour performance) at NYU Skirball tomorrow it does so under a heavy cloud of controversy.
Fabre is a celebrated Belgian multidisciplinary artist who has been honored as Grand Officer in the Order of the Crown, one of the country's highest honors. His visual art has been displayed at the Louvre and at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. According to The New York Times, his dance company, Troubleyn, receives about $1 million a year from the Belgian government.
But in an open letter posted to Belgian magazine Rekto Verso just a few months ago, 20 of his company's current and former dancers outline a horrific culture of sexual harassment, bullying and coercion. This comes on the heels of similar accusations at New York City Ballet and Paris Opèra Ballet.
Earlier this week, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck gave us some major onstage makeup inspiration while attending an offstage event. While walking the red carpet at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund gala, Peck's beauty look was still perfectly suited for the ballet with her top knot hairstyle and stage-worthy red lip. Peck's makeup artist for the night, Daniel Duran, shared his exact breakdown on the look, working exclusively with beauty brand Chantecaille. So, whether you're in need of a waterproof brow pencil, volumizing mascara or long-lasting red lip this Nutcracker season, we've got you covered.
There's a new tool that lets amputee ballet dancers perform on pointe. As reported in Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, industrial designer Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthesis he calls the "Marie . T" (after Marie Taglioni, of course) that allows dancers with below-the-knee amputations to do pointe work.
A carbon fiber calf absorbs shock while a stainless steel toe and rubber platform allow a dancer to both turn and grip the floor to maintain balance. What it doesn't allow the dancer to do? Roll down to demi-pointe or flat.