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At peace with his place

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown's style reflects his world travel and homegrown truths.

February 04, 2007|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

New York — THE space heater is cranked up to high in the sixth-floor Brooklyn offices of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, where the walls are plastered with posters featuring beautiful dancers and an array of African artifacts ups the exotica ante. Since Brown founded his dance company in 1985, this Bedford-Stuyvesant native who still lives in the 'hood has generated his own brand of heat, one honed by years spent telling stories through movement -- raw, honest moves whose roots come from a deep spiritual place.

That these stylized moves are also a fusion of diverse idioms -- from balletic and contemporary to hip-hop, postmodern, West African, Caribbean and beyond -- have given Brown, 40, a distinct choreographic voice, a testament not only to his talent but to his wherewithal in keeping a company together for 20 years and counting.

No stranger to Southland audiences, the troupe makes its REDCAT debut Wednesday, with the first of five performances as part of the Music Center's dance season. "One Shot: First Glance" includes "Grace" and the West Coast premiere of "Order My Steps" as well as a 12-minute portion of the evening-length title piece, an opus-in-progress inspired by African American photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris.

Brown's audaciousness in starting a company at just 19 has served him well. "I used to dance around the house and put on shows for my family," recalls Brown, his shaved head draped in a hoodie, with a light beard and mustache accentuating a beatific half-smile. "I even did creative movement for the Police Athletic League."

Headed to Dance Theatre of Harlem's summer program in 1978, Brown's terpsichorean journey was put on hold, he said, when he became enamored of other things. Then 12 and the oldest of four children, he began keeping a journal, writing poetry and doing boy things that didn't require wearing tights. Deciding to study journalism instead, he eventually earned a scholarship to St. Michael's College in Vermont

But soon after graduating high school, the teen auditioned and became a member of Mary Anthony Dance Theatre, a celebrated troupe founded in 1957 whose repertoire included work by modernists Lester Horton and Anna Sokolow.

The tenure, as it happens, proved short but pivotal. "The performers in her work never looked at each other," says Brown. "That bothered me. I wanted to be a person onstage; I wanted the audience to connect to real people onstage."

Thus was born Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, the name taken from a solo he made in 1985, a telling moniker that would prove to be his modus operandi, one in which his danced narratives would leave footprints, or "evidence," he says, "of what our families, our ancestors, all our teachers, have taught us."

Since then Brown and company have decidedly left their mark, performing all over the United States, Canada, France and England, while Brown's sojourns to the Ivory Coast and other parts of West Africa, beginning in 1994, also helped shape his artistic voice. As a choreographer Brown is much in demand, having made more than 50 works, including a number of high-profile commissions from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Philadanco and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble.

Last year the New York Times' John Rockwell wrote, "Brown has emerged in recent years as one of the strongest, most distinctive choreographers around." In 1999, praising "Grace," an Ailey commission that has since become a classic, the same paper's Anna Kisselgoff called it a work that "carries a special aura, an added dimension that speaks of spiritual concern."

Says Judith Jamison, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre: "The Ron Brown I know is a consummate artist, a real truth-sayer within his choreographic structure, which I find infectious. There are no gimmicks. He goes straight to the truth and the root of the movement, which he uses to convey feelings of love, family, caring about each other and generosity."

High-energy style

BROWN, who has earned a New York Dance and Performance Award, a Black Theater Alliance Award and a U.S. Artists Fellowship, was named Def Dance Jam Workshop Mentor of the Year in 2000. "Grace," which teems with whipping arms, explosive turns and abrupt changes in direction, is also a prime example of the West African influence, where head, shoulders and hips are sharply -- and separately -- articulated.

"Order My Steps," from 2005, with text by poet Chad Boseman, is another riff on God and community, loss and sadness, the emotions cutting to the bone. The notion that one could make dances about God stemmed from a second-grade school trip to see the Ailey company perform its gospel-infused masterpiece, "Revelations." For "Grace," which is set to West African music, Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" and several American rock tunes, Brown also credits his initial trip to the Ivory Coast, where he worked with choreographer Rokia Kone.

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