Ronald K. Brown

The choreographer creates a new Ailey dance.

At a recent rehearsal for his new work at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the choreographer Ronald K. Brown didn’t tell the dancers what they were doing wrong; he showed them, illustrating the silky, particular undulations of his movement by quietly slipping next to each one and dancing. Like magic, they fell into his rhythm, losing any residual toughness or mannerism along the way. “When I studied Swedish massage and shiatsu, my teacher said, 'That’s the way you learn,’” Brown explained later, “so I just sort of transferred that over.” In Dancing Spirit, he pays tribute to Judith Jamison in her 20th year as the company’s artistic director. Featuring music by Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead (performed by the Vitamin String Quartet) and War, Brown’s fourth dance for the company will do more than capture Jamison’s larger-than-life verve. The year Jamison took over—1989—was the same year Ailey died. In Dancing Spirit, which opens on December 11, he celebrates them both.

You created this work in honor of Jamison—why?
It’s to say thank you. I thought that a woman would start the piece with basically everyone kind of following her. But once I put the first ideas on students this past summer, I realized that a man needed to start it—to represent Mr. Ailey bringing her to us. The images kept coming, so I had this idea to have Ms. Jamison dance with Mr. Ailey, and of bringing his spirit into the space and having people dance with him and kind of be him. The company’s 50th-anniversary film shows Mr. Ailey in “Sinner Man”—you know how he kind of charges toward the camera? [Laughs] What if I got the men and the women to do that? So they take Ms. Jamison and become Mr. Ailey. Then we could say thank you to both of them, because without him we wouldn’t have her.

So you’re going to the root. Is there a specific dancer who plays Ailey?
I needed to have someone represent him in a way—even though toward the middle of the piece, I want everybody to feel like him. So I have Matthew Rushing and Josh Johnson [there are two casts] as the person who leads off the line dressed in all white. That represents the energy of Mr. Ailey. On Friday, I said to the dancers, “This is our last rehearsal. So where is Mr. Ailey?” And they said, “Right here.” I said, “Great. He’s up, he’s up, he’s in the room, he’s below us,” and then [associate artistic director Masazumi] Chaya took me and pointed out the window about two blocks away and said, “Mr. Ailey used to live in that building.” So whenever they reach back, I wanted to tell them, “Mr. Ailey used to live right there.” And he said, “You know the image you keep talking about of him running in 'Sinner Man’? This building used to be PBS, and that footage was shot here.” [Laughs] Things kept happening like that. I keep talking about how the dancers should hold their arms like a box, and Ms. Jamison leaned over and said, “Did you know that Mr. Ailey liked to have my arms in a box?” And I said, “Listen—I don’t know anything. It’s just coming and I’m saying okay.” [Laughs]

Explain to me what you mean by arms in a box.
Your arms are parallel to the floor and your elbows are pulled back so you’re making a box. It’s the shape of Ogun, the deity in Santoria, and I thought that Ogun needed to be in the piece because Ms. Jamison, maybe six years ago, gave me the tools of Ogun—just this metal ring that’s hanging on my wall. It’s like a horseshoe with pieces of metal hanging from it. Each of the deities have a tool, and his is iron. His tool is a machete. It’s very direct. And so that was the other thing when I was thinking about Ms. Jamison, I was thinking of someone direct, not just in terms of her line to Mr. Ailey, but of someone cutting through nonsense. There’s another deity in there: Elegba, who has a real impish energy that kind of opens the doorway and makes things happen but in a kind of playful way. Mischievous. In our relationship, there’s always that element of us giggling. People have different relationships with her, but she’s almost like a little girl to me. There’s a magnificent woman, and that’s why the Yemaja is there—the mother god, water and all of that fullness, but there’s also that bright light that’s young.

Has she been watching rehearsals?
She didn’t come a lot, which was—the dancers shift in a way when she’s in the room, like they take the performance up to a different place, and I think some of them are nervous, which I understand, but I just have to keep reminding them that I know this is different from the way they learn works, [and choreographers] tell them, “This is the count, the arm is here.” This is a process, and they had to keep learning from it. They can’t try and own it. They have to go to it and embody it.

How do you teach them your way of moving?
It’s repetition. I would try and dance close to them and remind them to watch me. Someone who I had been just so looking forward to working with sort of froze up from the first day. And after one of the breaks last week, I said, “You’re being stingy—you’re glorious onstage, and I was looking forward to working with you and then something happened. I don’t know what happened, but from the first day, I came in and I had to check my expectations.” This young lady said, “I was really intimidated by the movement.” I said, “Yeah but it’s about a process, and if you go inside and I have to keep knocking on the door, 'Come out, come out, come out,’ that makes it difficult. And I will dance with you all day long. But you have to watch and if you’re not looking because you’re in a box and afraid to look, it’s not going to work.”

Would you take me through some of the music?
I knew I wanted to use two pieces from Wynton Marsalis, and then Radiohead has a song, “Everything in Its Right Place.” I like the title, but the lyrics could be taken the wrong way, so I searched and found a few versions of the song; one, by the Vitamin String Quartet, was just so luscious. It’s perfect for Ms. Jamison. Then I wanted something that really allowed them to dance joy. “Flying Machine,” by War, let me find the movement that would let them do that. Ms. Jamison is a giant. I needed something magnificent.

What performance quality are you after?
I spoke to them a lot about a quality in some of the dances from Cte d’Ivoire; in a lot of traditional dances that are spiritual, or even in Buddhism, there’s this idea of looking down at the ground to bless it or to understand this kind of compassion. So you can’t have that performer gaze where you’re not really looking at each other or that kind of generic longing in your face. I said, “We need the body and the face to be mobile, but connected to the intention. I know you think it takes a lot of energy, but it takes more energy to hold on.” I also told them, “The habits that I’m talking about that you have? We can grieve for them, but we gotta kill them, at least for this piece.” Matthew [Rushing] said, “When you come here, I feel like I get stripped down, and anything I could rely on I can’t when I’m working with you.’?”

Rushing is a dancer I sometimes love and at other times sense a kind of artifice in. Do you know what I mean?
There’s something that [the dancers in his company] Evidence call smoky eyes, and I didn’t know what it was. And they mention, “Oh, Matthew was great, but then he had the smoky eyes.” So I think that might be what you’re talking about. It’s not squinting, but it’s a way of focusing that’s kind of put on. I think that’s a part of the performance thing.

Do you think it’s encouraged?
I think in a lot of companies, you’re taught to look up in the balcony, right? It’s far away. Look far into the distance!

It’s that modern-dance corner that I hate so much.
That’s what it is. If you’re looking that far off into the distance that’s the look that you have because you have to look like it’s far away, whereas I’m saying, “No. He’s right there. Mr. Ailey is right there. We don’t have to pretend.”

Is this a different approach, even subtly different, from the other dances you’ve made for the company?
Yes. I thought I would be able to work more like how I work with my company. I think it has to do more with my comfort level. With Grace [Brown’s first work for the Ailey company in 1999], I knew I had to give them something they could dance out because I didn’t know if I could get them to understand how to dance the story, so I needed it to be at a certain size. They could grab it. I feel like now I know more of how to teach the process. Even with the thing of, is it going to read? Will Judi want them to look in the modern-dance corner? But I can’t worry about that. I feel I just have to trust what I think it is.

On a different note, what is your favorite Ailey dance?
Maybe Witness. I hadn’t seen that piece ever and it was just gorgeous and then last year I went to a rehearsal of Three Kings.

Oh my God, that is amazing.
Oh my goodness. And then when I saw the performance, I was like, Okay. So those two dances.

Has anyone approached you about taking over the company when Jamison retires?
Last December someone approached me and asked me if I was interested. People have come up to me over the past couple of years, but no one from the organization—it was kind of like this rumor and it always felt a little awkward. Like, “What are you going to do?” So this was someone in-house and I said, “Well, I’ve been dreading this conversation,” and he said, “I just want to know if you would be willing to talk to the succession committee.” I said, “Well, of course, I have to.” And I spoke to my board and the dancers and then ultimately I decided that I shouldn’t. I started thinking maybe the past 25 years was preparing me for this if they were to offer me the position. And I thought of all different kinds of scenarios. Would I take Evidence dancers with me?

Like Twyla Tharp did at American Ballet Theatre?
Right. But I don’t think the organization really wants a change. And I think there was probably some concern of whether I would change the vision of the company, the look of the company. It just felt like I should focus on Evidence.

I’m disappointed. I think change is good. But maybe you should continue to do what you’re doing. It might have made you crazy.
I think so. [Laughs]

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is at New York City Center through Jan 3.

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