Crossing Cultural Lines

Ronald K. Brown blends modern and African dance so smoothly that it’s sometimes hard to pick out each form within his movement. The Brooklyn native has been leading his troupe Evidence for 28 years and creating new works for companies including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Philadanco. Most recently, he traveled to Cuba to workshop with local companies. He’ll return to set a piece on the group MalPaso, which will then travel to New York to perform the new work alongside their own rep.

Blending dance styles: When you’re using a traditional dance form in choreography, you have to look at the reason to use it. It has to serve the story. But that goes with Western dance, too. Movement should always have an intention; it can’t just be layered on top. An arabesque can say, “I love you” as well as “I hate you.” It’s how you do it that speaks.

Getting stuck while choreographing: I used to say “Eh, I’ll work through it tomorrow,” but I’ve learned that you have to force yourself to get up and fix it. If something’s not working, don’t get attached to it. Push through it. Once you put it on the dancers, it’s not yours anymore, and you have to let go of the ego side. It’s theirs to play with.

On working with dancers outside his company: I’m looking for dancers who don’t necessarily look like mine, but look good doing the material together. As for individuals, I don’t have time to pick at people’s idiosyncrasies. Who can maintain the integrity of the work but still have a conversation with me about what’s happening within it? I want someone who can be vulnerable enough to admit that they’re not sure if they’re doing something correctly.

Dance is a universal language: When I teach, I don’t talk much. I’m always moving with the dancers and have them follow along, so they can really discover the rhythm and feeling of a set of steps. When we were in Cuba, the dancers there followed me like a hawk. They were so open to going wherever I was taking them. DT

Training and career: wanted to be a journalist and didn’t begin studying dance seriously until after high school with Graham teacher Mary Anthony

Career: founded Evidence, A Dance Company in 1985; has set work on companies internationally;

choreographed the revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Choreography: uses hip hop, modern and African dance

to tell stories deeply rooted in spirit

Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Evidence

The Conversation
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