“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
A FAMILY MAN” a conversation with Bed Stuy’s acclaimed choreographer Ronald K. Brown (EVIDENCE DANCE COMPANY) with insights on Open Door featured in the Ailey Company’s 2016-17 Season
Though we had never met before, I sensed something familiar about choreographer Ronald K. Brown as he walked up to me in the lobby of The Ailey Studios in Manhattan. Brown’s Cuban-inspired dance production Open Door is being performed in Ailey’s 2016-17 season– a work the world- renowned company first debuted at New York City Center in December of 2015.
I’ve been looking forward to this meeting with Ron. I have seen his work performed in the past (Four Corners and Grace) and am an ardent admirer of his exuberant articulation of bodies pulsing rhythmically through space; his style an exciting amalgamation of modern dance blended organically with West African/Caribbean vernaculars. I know as soon as we begin to talk what I felt was familiar when we met moments before:
There is an openness about him, a sweetness, a boy/man energy and confidence dipped in what? Humility? Gratitude? It’s an energy I am familiar with from the Buddhist zendo where I meditate. Following a session of quiet sitting and reflection, everyone emerges wiped clean of the day, all of us more available, more human, better listeners, with fewer pretensions. There is no pretense with Ron. Nor is there in his dance.
“I am a spiritual person,” Brown observes. “My mother’s side of the family was Pentecostal. No dancing allowed,” he laughs. “But I’m also from several generations of family churches on my father’s side and down in North Carolina on visits, I was actually encouraged to dance!”
Ron’s plan didn’t include becoming a dancer and choreographer. “I was…am…a writer. As a matter of fact, I have been working on a book for a while entitled WALKING OUT THE DARK. It’s a collection of stories, life observations, notes about the various places I have been with my dance company, reflections on my travels out there and,” pointing to his heart, “…in here. I write about moving forward, in spite of the dark places within us, exposing them to them to the light. A lot of what I do is about healing.”
I ask him what inspired the title Open Door. Brown said he knew he wanted to create something uniting all he learned from his two visits to Cuba, once in 2001 and again in 2014. “There is so much dance happening there!” Ron explains. “Such spirit…the people, the music, culture. It’s inspiring to just be there.” It’s no wonder that this sense of excitement transformed itself into Open Door, a work for 10 dancers set to the music of Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, including songs from their recently released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues.”
“The title emerged from my discovery that the word for ‘door’ and ‘chapter’ are the same in Arabic. It makes sense. I feel I am always walking through an open door to begin a new chapter in my life–in dance, in my relationships, spiritual growth.”
“My family is an ever-present inspiration for me in all that I do,” Brown reflects. “They truly believe in me. My parents and other family members underwrote my founding of EVIDENCE back in 1985, and their support has been a constant ever since.”
Following the death of his mother in 1996, Ron brought a brother and sister to live with him. “It was an amazing experience,” he says, laughing. “There was a big age difference between us, but we learned so much about one another. And now I’m blessed with nieces and nephews and 3 godchildren.” Brown’s face lights up when he speaks of his nephew, 11-year-old Ame who lives upstate. “There is a traditional meaning for his name– “beloved” or “eagle”—and Ame is both! But in this case, the letters making up his name are the first letters of three other, beloved family members.”
Ron shares that Ame is a dancer as well, but with an eye towards film-making. “Still who knows what the future holds.” I smile. “Yes, and YOU wanted to be a writer at his age!”
“That’s true. When I look at Ame, I am reminded of the freedom most of us had when we were too young to know fear or have doubt about ourselves. There’s so much energy available to adults in the memories of that younger, brave time. I always hope my choreography reflects some of that kind of charged fearlessness.
“I am fortunate. I have my family, my dance family and friends, and my growing world family. My job as a choreographer always challenges me to utilize dance to speak in ways that reveal the joys of coming together, of being a family. We need that kind of embrace out in the world more than ever now.”
I say, “Amen!” to that.
Evidence performs at BRIC House November 17-20. Ronald K. Brown’s works are featured during Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s New York City Center season, beginning November 30th, including a special “Celebrating Ronald K. Brown” evening on December 14. For details, visit: www.alvinailey.org.
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