Talking dance with Ronald K. Brown

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Time Out New York: It’s become unusual for a choreographer to have a company that tours consistently like yours. How do you handle it?
Ronald K. Brown : It’s about being able to show the work. I joke sometimes, when I’m feeling tired, that I’m going to open a health-food store or sell oranges on the street. And then a good friend of mine says, “Well, how about the work you’re providing for those young dancers? And how about the work you’re doing?” And so the responsibility aspect is thrown back on me.

What if you wanted to make something you couldn’t tour?
I don’t really think about that so much; I guess when I started the company I knew that I had to make a space for Evidence. I didn’t think there was a space for it. The dance community—even now, I see a lot of work when I’m in town. And people will go, “Ahhh!” and they love it. I feel like I don’t have a place in the dance world. I have to remember why I made Evidence in the first place. So the dance community is what it is, and it’s been 24 years since the company’s first showing. I’m continuing. Other people have given up and why have I not? I think it’s because of the work and the dancers.

What kind of work don’t you like that everyone else does?
We were in Lyon and saw this amazing company—kind of hip-hop/house. The first section was about the favelas in Brazil, so the music was hot, and it was well choreographed—great, great, great. Then in the second section, they put cups on the edge of the stage and they were pouring water into them and dancing with their fingers around the cups and I’m like, “Pick up the cup and drink the water.” But the audience was “Ahhh!” Then the dancers got out plastic raincoats… [He covers his eyes.] A couple of years ago, I saw a concert in Minneapolis; a woman was wrapped up in a lot of tulle and she rolled out of the tulle and she rolled back into the tulle. [He shakes his head sadly.] I don’t know. When it’s self-indulgent…I end up feeling that’s part of the reason we don’t have large support for dance: It’s not about us sharing anything, it’s about us having fun exploring tulle or water.

Why did you start Evidence?
I understand the idea of going to the theater and going to see ballet or opera. I enjoy work that’s about the craft, but it can’t only be about that. And I understand that, too, because when I choreograph, I’ll put something together in a clever way and then have to bring the machete out to get rid of it. [Laughs] You may think it’s well put-together, but what does it contribute to the audience’s understanding of what the journey of the piece is?

What do you still love to see?
[Quickly] Maguy Marin. Oh my goodness. Her imagination seems out of this world, but she brings it here. [He pats his chest.]

Do you still see Mary Anthony, with whom you trained early on?
I saw her maybe a year ago. My experience at her studio was so amazing. I remember that I auditioned for a partial scholarship; I had graduated a year early from high school and thought, I’ll dance for the summer. I couldn’t round my back for a contraction in the audition, and I was like, “Mommy, I can’t dance. I can’t round my back. Can I take this extra year and learn how to dance?” She said, “I told you so; get a job and learn how to dance.” I was scared to take dance classes. So every three months at Mary Anthony we had to show something for a composition class. After six months I said, “I have two things I want to show” and then, “I have three things I want to show.” After two years of being there, I said, “You know what? I think I want to start my own company.” The showing was at her studio. She started her company up again because of some of us who were there. I think she was a little disappointed that she got this encouragement to start the company and then I started my own. But she’s been supportive.

You studied choreography with Anthony and Anna Sokolow. Who else?
In 1987, I did a workshop at the Dance Theatre of Harlem with Bessie Schoenberg. There were three of us. Arthur Mitchell was trying to encourage contemporary choreographers to choreograph ballet. From there, we had a great relationship where she would come and watch rehearsal and just challenge me. She would leave and call me that evening and say, “Okay, you say you want to do X, Y and Z, but I don’t see that—what are you trying to do? Speak up for yourself!” The lesson was for me to do what I intend. Not, “I want you to show me structure,” which is the other way people teach composition. Repeat it three times, first slow and then speed it up. I understand how to use the music. I learned about intention from Bessie. I make sure my dancers understand it. So anything I’m working on or writing about, and any images, videos and books that I have, I share with them. It’s important for them to know exactly what I want.

Have you ever been asked to choreograph for a ballet company?
Yes. I would consider it. When I made Grace for Ailey the phone calls were coming in. Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet called me, but I don’t think I had the time. Cincinnati Ballet called me to create something for the opening of the Underground Railroad museum [National Underground Railroad Freedom Center]. I don’t work well in terms of a commission where you’re expecting something. It’s better for me if you give me an opportunity, and I can come with an idea. So that’s why it hasn’t really happened.

Do any other companies dance Grace?
No. Even with Ailey, if Ms. [Judith] Jamison and I think that there are no dancers who can do Grace, we don’t do it. I need that kind of relationship.

Are you choreographing another dance for Ailey next year?
This year.

Thank God.
[He buries his hands in his face.] I watched a lot of performances last season to try to find dancers and to decide which of the dances we might bring back. We might do Grace and Ife/My Heart. And I’ll make a new piece, Dancing Spirit.

That’s the name of Jamison’s autobiography, right?
Yes. I want to celebrate her, and I came across her book. I called her and said, “Is it okay if I use that title?” And she said, “Yes! Do whatever you want.”

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