Wake Up to Brown
One Shot at greatness in Eugene
by Rachael Carnes
Using projected images, spoken word and an apothecary of dance styles, Ronald K. Brown blends a performance prescription that’s all his own. When I read last year about his latest tour, I set down The N.Y. Times, sighed and thought, “Well, I’ll read the reviews.” Such is life in a sleepy college town.
Well, wake up! Because the Hult Center has collaborated with the community to bring in one of the most talked about pieces of live theater of the past year.
For his latest project, One Shot, Brown trains his keen eye on Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998), a photojournalist who documented the African American population in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th century. Harris earned the moniker “One Shot” because he knew that in photography, one shot was all you needed — if it was good.
To distill the epic down to the slightest phrase and to tell the story using only the body: That’s the choreographer’s job. Brown hovers his lens, focusing and drawing back, creating an aperture through which we can see connections between the past and the present. This creative capacity has earned Brown resolute praise since he founded his dance company, Evidence, in 1985 when he was 19.
Blending African, Caribbean and American dance club moves, Brown’s work has steadily built a following. In the U.S., a dance company’s mere survival is a profound achievement. Not only has his company thrived, but Brown has received accolades and commissions from dance titans, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Protests and picket lines, boundaries and their crossing: The Harris photos capture a moment in time, sometimes sore, sometimes exultant, every one reverberating. Brown’s vision draws on many voices, from the contemporary West African percussionist Mamadouba Mohammed Camara’s djembe playing to Lena Horne lilting as she studies her own reflection in the mirror.
At one point, a trio of male dancers walk backwards in a tight circle, pressing their arms away one at a time, their feet a cool step-together, step-together. A woman counters them with bursting turns, her movement slipping effortlessly between ballet and African vocabulary. Is she a metaphor for change?
Brown plumbs the jazz sound to weave more texture into the story: A woman’s solo emanates terrific strength and a tinge of vulnerability. As “Like someone in love” serenades, the dancer discovers suspension — an extended balance, a lifting of the chest and shoulders upwards — that seems to contrast with slight tugs down and in, as if the gestures would bundle up the doer in self-protection. Harris’s photo projects an image of women dressed up for a party or a social. But are they happy to be there? Brown allows us into this indecision.
Rhythmic pathways create a spirited duet as Brown interplays social courtship dancing and contemporary movement. A man and woman walk, his arm lightly resting on the small of her back, they promenade. This dynamic opens up into a conversation as the two overlay their voices, with a turn, a lift of the arm, a swift flick of the leg, and a bouncy moment ensues, as if the dancers, flushed with the new, are finishing each other’s sentences.
While in Eugene, Ronald K. Brown will work with middle school students documenting their own neighborhoods and families in a photography workshop at LCC and offer master classes and lecture demonstrations for the UO School of Music and Dance.
But you don’t have to be a student to view an exhibition of 31 photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris, selected from the Archives of Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, at DIVA from now until Nov. 22.
One Shot. Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. 2:30 pm Sunday, Oct. 26. Hult Center • $18-$36. 682-5000.