Sunday, February 18, 2018

Witness for the Affirmation: Ronald K. Brown in Toronto for Black History Month

Members of Ronald K. Brown's Evidence dance company performing Four Corners. (Photo: Saya Hishikawa)

Shoulders rippled like water, hips swayed like trees in a summer breeze, spines slithered like snakes and feet, bare yet sure, beat out intricate rhythms like maracas upon the stage floor. This was movement so luxuriantly tactile you wanted to wrap your own body in it. But there was no tearing it off the backs of the dancers in Evidence, the New York dance company led by acclaimed American choreographer Ronald K. Brown, who has also created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Company and Philadanco, among other leading contemporary dance companies in the U.S. As seen recently at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto, where they performed during the first weekend in February following a 12-year absence, the six-member ensemble embraced Brown’s fusion of traditional West African, Caribbean and modern western dance styles (including the black American vernacular dances from Soul Train) with an air of self-possession that made the movement theirs, and theirs alone. Tall, small, slim and curvy, they performed Brown’s exuberantly physical and intensely contemplative choreography with a commitment that felt fresh and alive. Their dancing rolled and sung. It radiated heart. The dancers looked regal without pretension, and beautiful without vanity. This was dance in which meaning and movement forged an intimate partnership, and a strong visceral connection, with the audience.

Excitement built during a 90-minute program of three works (all by Brown) which Dance Immersion, founder Vivine Scarlett’s Toronto-based organization supporting dance from the African diaspora since 1994, presented as part of the city’s ongoing Black History Month celebrations. Brown founded Evidence – the word connotes affirmation – in his native Brooklyn in 1985 as a form of kinetic storytelling, and those stories typically draw on history to shed light on the contemporary African-American experience. This show did not veer from that mandate. Themes ranged from religion and spirituality to social activism and the importance of community in contemporary African culture. Angels and protest movements, like the Civil Rights crusades of the 1960s, walked hand in hand. Brown listens to the mysterious whisperings of earth and sky in equal measure. He also listens to a lot of great music, much of it going unfettered into his dances to guide the choreographic process.

A case in point is Come Ye, a work dating to 2003 and set to the Nina Simone song of the same name. The High Priestess of Soul, as Simone was known before her death in 2003, inspired the piece as much as did her plaintive lyric calling for peace amid suffering. The rebel virtuoso often lent her husky voice to the fight for racial equality. In this, one of his better-known works, Brown puts that voice on replay. “Let's work together as we should / And fight to stay alive,” Simone can be heard singing on a recording forming the soundtrack to Robert Penn’s video montage of documentary footage showing the paddy wagons, attack dogs and brush-cut policemen that the authorities used in hopes of quelling the momentum of the American Civil Rights movement. The scare tactics ultimately did not work. As Simone says in her song, her people won their freedom when they lost their fear, and accepted that “abuse must be paid / For the love of your fellow man.” The higher good would be the greater force.

Arcell Cabuag (left) in Come Ye. (Photo: Bill Hebert)

Brown celebrates that moral victory with dancing that is joyful,and not angry, assertive and not strident. His ensemble of dancers robustly expresses the call to liberty by means of a highly-charged, self-assured group dance in which individual bursts of knee-wagging energy bubble to the surface, fluctuating the movement constantly between abandon and control. Legs flick out rapidly, left and right, hips twist and turn, arms push upwards and outwards and feet shuffle and slide during a ceaseless cavort. This is the freedom train, and it lunges forward at full throttle. The destination is clearly defined. To the driving rhythms of Afrobeat master Fela Kuti, the dancers raise their fists in unison in a black power salute. Their protest is people-powered; accordingly, Brown dresses the troupe in denim – a durable and labour-related material. But the look, as designed by Omotayo Olaiya, varies – long coats, short sleeves, poor-boy caps, three-quarter pants, side-slit tunics and hip-gracing buttoned jackets. A shared goal; a coordinated purpose.

Keiko Voltaire’s costuming for New Conversations: First Looka new work only just unveiled in 2018, is entirely different – citrusy colours on a fluid fabric that ebbs and flows with Brown’s whirling, twirling movement style. The impetus is once again a piece of music, this time an original score commissioned from the Grammy Award-winning Afro-Cuban jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill. Brown has collaborated with O’Farrill before, notably on the 2015 dance piece, Open Door. Like that earlier work, New Conversations is an abstract piece buoyed up by the music’s syncopated rhythms. But a muted subtext, lying just below the surface of the movement’s tidal surge, makes it different from what came before. Brown isn’t here just counting time  He’s sizing up the spaces that exist in between people, the relationships still waiting to happen, the conversations still needing to be heard. Arms reach outwards to bridge an invisible gap, inviting intimacy and the formation of community, values close to the choreographer’s heart.

Community, and the importance of creating a united front to conquer life’s sorrows, is an idea given an especially strong emphasis in Four Corners. Brown first conceived this work about deliverance from the lamentations of this world in 2013 for the Alvin Ailey company; the ecstatic reviews which greeted its reception helped raise his profile internationally. It’s a strong and soulful work, well deserving of its accolades. The smaller Evidence company, led on stage by dancer Arcell Cabuag, who this year is celebrating his 20th year as associate artistic director, lends it a heightened poignancy. The title refers to the four angels mentioned in the Book of Revelation who control the four winds that would bring destruction to the earth. Besides the Bible (Brown is a devout Christian who frequently dances with faith), inspiration for this exquisitely crafted work comes from Carl Hancock Rux’s poem, "Lamentations," which quotes from the religious text, the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and the North African vocalist, Yacoub. The dancers are pilgrims in search of solace, and they grieve and pine, undulate and keen, as they meander on their journey. Each in turn is buffeted by the winds of unpredictability. Their ability to resist is not a matter of physical daring, but more to do with emotional tenacity, and the strength of their collective soul.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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