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Flash Review 3, 5-10: Energetic and Purposeful....
....But Where is Ron Brown's Art?

By Beth McNeill
Copyright 2001 Beth McNeill

CHICAGO -- The Dance Center of Columbia College presented Ronald K. Brown/Evidence last week. Brown led his ensemble of four men and three women to the stage and took command of the audience from the outset. As people gathered in the theater, the house buzzed with electricity, with rhythm and blues playing in the background. When eight beautiful African-American dancers took to the stage, the audience was right there with them in spirit.

Brown presented three works on two different programs. "Upside Down" and "High Life" were presented on every program, while "Incidents" was presented on just one, and "Better Days" on the other. Brown's movements were strong, dynamic and intense; a cross and culmination of both traditional African dance and contemporary modern dance forms. From a pure movement standpoint there were little variations in movement dynamics from one piece to another. He showed movement by intermittently showing stillness, as if the dancers had been swept away in a moment and then dropped back to reflect on what has just happened.

The pieces seemed to have no beginnings and no endings, existing solely to entertain their audiences. The works were more identifiable by music selection, costuming and title choices and changes within a piece, than by movement structure and content. In the first work of the evening, "Upside Down," an excerpt from an evening-length work, "Destiny," the dancers began by introducing themselves to the space. Five bare-chested men spread across the stage made their way into the lit space while three women brightly costumed in red, green, and orange dresses stayed their ground. Brown clearly and cleverly designed the space by dividing his dancers into groups that moved together through the space throughout the piece.

The first section, "Premonition," ended with the dancers each lifting another in the prone position and walking off with him. This struck me as a bit odd because there had been no physical contact between the dancers during the work before this dancer was suddenly lifted at the end of the section. From where did the lift come? Why was this man carried off of the stage this way? How did we get to the end? These were the questions left in the audience's mind as the lights faded to black.

"Attainment," the second section, began with a dramatic change in music style from traditional African-American songs to a contemporary African rap style of music. The sections seemed only to be related by the continuity in costuming and energy of the dancing. The audience was treated to some fine dancing as Brown and his dancers explored larger movement phrases that melded into repetitions of the phrases performed with a much narrower range of motion. The dancers took to the space four by four, which transitioned into a brilliant solo for Brown and subsequent solos. The work ended out of thin air. Somehow that dancer was once again down and this time the women picked him up and carried him off to end the work. What was attained in this section?

The visual clarity in the movements of the dancers in "Upside Down," along with in the other works of the evening made it possible for the audience to keep track of the groups and of the spatial design. This was a treat. In many modern dance performances in Chicago, one movement phrase is repeated over and over again with different spacings, designs and groupings and the audience never knows where to look or if that phrase will ever evolve or end. A little boy said in a recent Q&A, "I like it when you all move together, because then it isn't so confusing." Brown has crafted his work so that the audience is never confused and never questions where they should focus.

"Incidents," a trio for three women clothed in white flowing dresses, began with one dancer cradling and taking care of the wound of a barebacked dancer upstage center, while the third dancer moved through the space to traditional African-American songs sung by the Staple Singers. The charm of this piece was rooted in its first section. The juxtaposition of the figure caring for the ailing against the wild emphatic dancing of another conjured up many associations. Brown carefully set Diedre Dawkins in motion. Many times, right as she was about to take off, he brought her back to walking while observing the space around her. This theme grew a bit predictable and when the audience was encouraging her to break out of this pattern and dance, dance, dance, she once again pulled back to a walk.

The next two sections did not seemed linked to the first or to have their own identities. The two figures in the background, once separated in character, joined Dawkins and became one and the same. They danced as if inspired by the sound and joy of movement. One occurrence distracted from the tone of the piece. The dancers, lit with their own specials, lined the left side of the stage. One dancer abruptly left her pool of light; running away to center stage as if entering some crisis state. The others noticed her missing and ran to find her, only to go back to what they were doing. This incident was not commented on later in the work, so it appeared just as the title suggested, an incident. The piece ended rather abruptly with the dancers circling center, dancing towards one another for the first time. Was this another Incident or was it time for the dance to end? The audience was left to answer that question.

The night ended with "High Life," an eight-section work danced by the whole company, and premiered in 2000. Of this dance Brown has said, "This work is my most recent attempt to review the dynamics that come into play as we travel from one cultural experience to another...what is gained and lost during migration?" The idea of traveling was conveyed by Brown's use of progression and procession across the space and by a set that included carts of suitcases. The costumes and music changed from section to section as did the attitudes and characters of the dancers. The work began with "Bid Em In," a slave auction where the dancers moved across upstage one by one while the voice was describing the physical attributes and assets of each. It ended in a celebration of the contemporary African status with Groove and Ekabo, with electric dancing that matched the energy and durance of the music. Also setting the musical tone was music by the late Nigerian Afro-Pop star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Brown was successful at sustaining his idea of cultural traveling while remaining distant from the subject matter. This approach is reminiscent of docu-dramas or commercials that show you a glimpse of the product but never allow you to really know what the product can or cannot do. Brown told us that we were traveling by bringing out luggage carts full of suitcases and travel bags. They did not serve as props per se, but they did make his idea more obvious so that the audience could see what he meant and then return to enjoying the dancing.

Because Brown created obvious work, and because it was danced with energy and purpose, the audience was engaged. They whooped and hollered throughout the evening in response to the dancers and the dancing. When the company came out for its bow, the house rose to give a standing ovation. Brown knows what works. He is a genius at portraying obvious cultural themes, but it seems that this is all there is. He does not make a comment on these themes. He moves dancers through space and time and creates character dancing with these themes in mind, but he says nothing. With this stated, how can he lose? He has clear ideas about his work, he has employed amazing dancers that believe in the work, and he selects music and costumes that feed the idea. What else can he do? Do you ask someone like Brown to reach out and tackle new themes or does the dance world embrace him and ask him to remain as he is now, a powerhouse for the African community and an inspired dance maker?

 

Beth McNeill is currently teaching, choreographing and performing in diverse venues in Chicago. She has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Louisville and an M.F.A. in Performance and Choreography from New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. She has performed with the Louisville Ballet Civic Company, Second Avenue Dance Company and Solomons Company/Dance in New York and for various freelance choreographers in Chicago. She is the resident choreographer and frequent guest teacher for the University of Louisville Dance Theatre. Beth has also developed and directed annual Choreography Workshops, hosted by the University of Louisville Dance Theatre. She is active in Regional Dance America and has taught and choreographed works performed in the Mid-States and Southeast regional festivals. Beth has also been involved in Artist in Residence programs in the Michigan, Kentucky and South Carolina school systems.

 

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