Reviews from across the country suggest that Ronald K. Brown’s dance works are typically exuberant and dramatic.
And yet, atypically, the choreographer lifts these vigorous moves from text: Brown, with his company Evidence, creates dance pieces specifically drawn from song lyrics, poetry and stories.
His attraction to words makes easy sense when you hear his personal history.
“I was going to college to study journalism,” Brown remembers in a break between rehearsals at a Boston high school for performing arts. “The summer before going I decided, okay, I’ll dance for the summer. That was a detour that took over my life.”
Brown has performed continuously since 1985, when he founded Evidence at the age of 19. The company has been seen across the U.S. and Canada, as well as in England and France, and its mission statement includes reference to “kinetic storytelling” and “contextualizing current tales and acknowledged history.”
In addition to performance work, the company conducts residencies in communities and schools, offering a master class in contemporary dance for advanced or intermediate students. Evidence residencies specifically include Text and Movement workshops in which writers, dancers, choreographers and performance artists can work to translate written work into motion.
Words are very much a part of the work Brown has been doing in Asheville, which will culminate in performances March 18 and 19 as part of the Mainstage Dance Series at Diana Wortham Theatre. Beginning last fall, Asheville-area writers were invited to submit short essays or poems inspired by the phrase, “Coming from where I’m from.” Submissions were reviewed by a panel and are being published in six local publications (see sidebar) as part of an effort to expand connections between dance and the wider arts scene. The writers have been invited to attend the Text and Movement workshops as well as rehearsals with the YMI Cultural Center’s community dance group.
The air up here
Brown was in Asheville in December to begin work at the YMI on a piece he created specifically for Asheville. The community dance group includes the Florence Green Line Dancers and Asheville High School dance students, as well as members of the general public. “I’ve been working with elders and young people at the YMI,” Brown says. “We did quite a bit of work when I was in Asheville in December, so now we’ll go back and tighten it up. That will be the actual opening of the concert.”
Asked how many cities will host Evidence residencies this year, Brown reveals, “Only three.” His schedule, he explains, “doesn’t really allow for it.” But the local show is in good company: “I’m doing something here in Boston; later on we’ll be in New Orleans,” says Brown.
Being the only small-town stop worked in Asheville’s favor — the local invitation to authors is fairly unique to our venue. “Asheville will be the first time this year that we are working with writers,” says Brown. He explains that the last opportunity Evidence had for this type of collaboration was at the University of Iowa, where students in the college’s MFA programs, including Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop, were encouraged to combine forces.
Work submitted by Asheville writers was not used for creation of the planned performances, however. “This exercise was to get the writers in the community there to understand how I use text to feel a dance piece,” he says. “But I knew almost from the beginning, simply in terms of time, that I wouldn’t be able to develop a dance piece based on that work. It was much more about trying to draw up a parallel in terms of creativity.
“While the writers were doing that,” Brown continues, “I wanted to find out from this corps of dancers what life was like in Asheville, and how we could use that to develop the opening for the show.
“When I came to Asheville, I was kind of blown away. When you hear about a town, you don’t really know what it’s like. It’s such a beautiful city that I’m really looking forward to sharing the work there.”
Other works slated for the Asheville performances are clearly expressions of storytelling. A featured work is Come Ye, a dance inspired by the song of that title recorded in the early ’60s by Tryon native Nina Simone. Brown notes that he was listening to a Simone recording just after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. “I was eager to remember that in a time of war, the destination and process are still about peace.” He was inspired to create a dance that would “express the physicality of a prayer warrior.” The piece is infused with the West African, Shango, Yoruba, Cuban and Brazilian influences that make up the Ronald K. Brown/Evidence style.
The story Brown heard in Simone’s song involves summoning up soldiers, warriors and angels who are dedicated to liberation and are willing to fight for their lives and, ultimately, for peace. The score for the dance includes two other works by Simone, as well as compositions by Nigerian singer/composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Another work, Grace, with music by Duke Ellington, Roy Davis and Fela Kuti, was originally choreographed by Brown for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. According to Brown, the piece examines people who are living their lives without acknowledging the grace that surrounds their individual existences.
The first appearance of Evidence in Asheville bodes to confirm both his reputation and that of the venue which continually presents the best in contemporary-dance performance. Given Brown’s attachment to words, however, this may be the one show that won’t leave patrons speechless.
No words too small (where they’re coming from)
In his Text and Movement workshops, Ron K. Brown shapes his lesson plans around his students’ own written words, including excerpts from the following poems by two of his local students. The submitted works were inspired by the phrase, “Coming from where I’m from.”
when you walk down a long newly paved road
and fail to trip upon a spike in the temple of that old familiar
where and when does your soul go running to then
and where will we walk to now
— from “Long Dirt Road,” by Grover Wehman
… I don’t think that
It is the size of anything that goes in, or
Comes out of one’s mouth, yet how it
Is digested …
So that is the bathroom wisdom of
Baby limas, and the importance or
Non-importance of millimeters to
The spirit …
— from “Baby Lima Beans,” by Kimberly Barker
As part of its Mainstage Dance Series, Diana Wortham Theatre presents Ronald K. Brown/Evidence at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19. Tickets are $30/general, $28/seniors and students, $10/children. Student-rush tickets (day of show with I.D.) are $10. Discounted tickets are available for the UNCA community. Call 257-4530 or 232-5000.
Before each Diana Wortham performance, Connie Schrader, head of the UNCA dance program, will lead a free discussion titled, “Words in Motion — The Use of Spoken Word and Text in Dance.” These talks will take place in the Forum at Pack Place at 7 p.m. (In addition to the Mainstage performances, Evidence will dance and deliver lectures/demonstrations and dance workshops at Asheville High School, Madison Middle School and other institutions March 14 through 16. Workshops will include Western modern dance as well as traditional, contemporary and social dance from the U.S., Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.)