Impressions of: Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
As Company Celebrates its 30th Anniversary Season at The Joyce
"Come, Sunday” is back on the sound-track, but despite this sweet prayer, which returns near the end of Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, three men sink to the ground so they can mime shooting craps.
Now, I ask you: is that any way to spend the Lord ’s Day? Surely, by the end of Grace — a dance part ecstasy, and part shifting, gestural debate — those men should have sweated out their evil habits.
Brown, whose company, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, opened its 30th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater, on February 24, has a point to make, however. His dances are filled with spiritual yearnings, but salvation isn’t guaranteed. In Grace, a saint has come to shepherd the flock to safety. But even with Clarice Young watching over them; and even when the dancers line up obediently at the exit, single-file like a Sunday School class, you have to wonder whether all of them will make it. Maybe Brown is reminding us, when the men cast their invisible dice, that love is always a gamble. In our fallen world, even faith in God is an all-or-nothing wager we have no choice but to make.
Things are scarcely more assured in The Subtle One, the new work that opened the first of two season programs (Grace was the closer). The title of this new dance refers to Allah, a god of many epithets, but Brown is pretty subtle himself; and when he slows things down we can only admire the gentle roll in the dancers’ shoulders, their self-possession in stillness and the way their hands press softly against the air.
The choreography is mined with surprises. Arcell Cabuag enters, only to circle around and leave the stage; and later, headed for the wings, he suddenly veers off that path and stays with us. Brown creates curious, layered effects juxtaposing lines of dancers — the line in back moving energetically, and the one in front barely at all. A tendency to arrange the dancers facing front creates a static, haloed effect. The whole piece, though, is sharpened like a wedge, or an arrow. As the dancers enter, their number diminishes to a point. First we get a trio, then two pairs, and finally a woman bringing up the rear alone. That woman is Young, and it’s as if Brown were pointing at her, and singling her out as the one who will drop down to earth to guide the stragglers home in Grace.
The scene might be heaven, but even these characters, who are saints, or angels, have not attained their ultimate goal. Young appears perturbed, as if she were searching for something, and sometimes a dancer will crouch on the floor with head bowed in a gesture of defeat. More than these hints of pain, and more than the occasional commotion, what stays with me, though, is the image of Annique Roberts frozen in flight. As she hangs balanced in an arabesque, her glittering eyes stare over our heads and she seems to spy another realm in the distance. Atypically, all the music is by New Age jazz composer Jason Moran or by a member of his Bandwagon trio, and this unity contributes to the piece’s trance-like atmosphere. The musicians are there to support the dancers, with Moran the silken pianist and Tarus Mateen adding scratchy bass guitar by way of contrast, with Nasheet Waits on drums.
Sandwiched in between these episodes of throbbing mysticism comes a dance with its feet on the ground. The extraordinary duet “March,” from Brown’s 1995 piece Lessons, is mostly set to a speech by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and its backdrop is the roiling panorama of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s a huge subject, but Brown manages to boil it down to an individual’s choice between passivity and action. While Coral Dolphin slowly skirts the edges of the space, her head bowed and her focus directed inward, Roberts cuts loose in an unfettered solo. It seems as if only one of these characters is going to make a difference in the world. Then a change comes over Dolphin, and she joins Roberts in the dance. Brown seems to applaud. As the women partner and take each other’s weight, we hear “The Saints Come Marching In.”
“Exotica,” another excerpt from Lessons, widens the frame. Although the group will come to repeat the contemplative, outsider’s walk that Dolphin introduced in “March,” they don’t start out that way. Dressed in jewel-tone velvets, they slink to a club house beat and nod to one another’s fabulousness. Life has a way of stressing even the most glamorous, however, and we can only guess at the dramas underlying what follows: tall Randall Riley standing, wary and defensive, in a rectangle of light; or being comforted by Shayla Alayre Caldwell. When we hear, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” we know someone is feeling small. Individuals wrestle with their demons, until Brown herds the cast together again and they clasp their hands in prayer. There is a balm for what ails them, but they can only find it when they make common cause.