Portland, OR — Ronald K. Brown/Evidence presented a breathtaking evening of contemporary dance April 6-8 at Portland’s Newmark Theater. Sponsored by White Bird Dance, the performance was the crown jewel in a week of community events that included a public conversation with Brown and dance legend Judith Jamison (of Alvin Ailey Dance Company fame) as well as a host of community master classes.
In a moment of societal and artistic insecurity, when the arts and arts education are under fire, White Bird continues to beat the drum for more dance, more knowledge, more … humanity.
And Brown’s work is delightfully humane. Approachable, stylistically accessible, his movement signature invites an emotional response, a sense of ideation, as if audience members are somehow so intertwined with the dance that they themselves are up onstage.
2014’s Why You Follow/Por Que Sigues, with its glowing jewel-toned costumes by Keiko Voltaire, has an effervescent quality — a kind of invitation into a language so universally manifested that it’s like a roadmap back to spirit and home.
Set to music by Zap Mama, Gordheaven and Juliano, the Allenko Brotherhood and the Heavy Quartez, the piece explores themes of diaspora through a lens of the now, weaving and bobbing through history and the present, sliding and lifting through intricate patterning and shape. The results are technically virtuosic but appear effortless.
Brown’s company is a joy.
Arcell Cabuag anchors the men with a vivacious, irrepressible earthiness. Clarice Young embodies stalwart dedication and stewardship to technique, with long, exquisite lines and perfect placement. Annique Roberts, with her enthusiastic lightness and complete mastery over every step, finds freedom in each moment.
Demetrius Burns, Kevyn Ryan Butler, Janeill Cooper, Courtney Ross and Keon Thoulouis each contribute glorious strengths to the effort, powering through and pulling back, exploding and receding, defining and exploring. Their work in this piece is like an incantation, a prayer.
In 1995’s Lessons: March (Excerpt), Annique Roberts and Clarice Young dance to and with and through the indelible words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Interesting to note: On alternate performances, two men — Demetrius Burns and Kevyn Butler — dance the roles.)
The piece sets up a syllogism, asking, as King asked: “What’s the value of man?”
Here, Brown discovers emotional nuance in King’s speech, already packed with meaning, but through the dance, the words are lifted up, placed in relief against a clear blue sky. It’s as if, through this dynamic duet, Brown can harness the forces of nature — the wind, rain and sun — and pour it all into dance that feels like verse.
An evergreen, Lessons: March, should be required viewing for every American.
The evening ended with 2011’s On Earth Together, a masterful journey through life that is set to the music of Stevie Wonder, with otherworldly lighting design by Tsubasa Kamei.
In this piece, Brown’s style is never ham-fisted, never overt. He holds back from the maudlin, the sentimental. Instead, his work focuses on the universal connections that foster compassion and knowing. His dancers find each other onstage; they take tiny moments, making eye contact, clearly enjoying the connection and creation they’re engaged in.
It’s a subtle act of defiance, a tangible drift from dance that once focused solely on form, for its own sake.
When Brown came out to dance, the crowd erupted in wild applause. In fact, throughout this evening’s concert, the crowd was responsive, cheering, whooping. The dance invites an atmosphere of connection.
In his own unique way, Brown charges the performing arts in this century with a new mandate: Make the world a more loving and compassionate place. — Rachael Carnes