Face to Face: Ronald K. Brown

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

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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