Ronald K. Brown recently described his choreography as “amber,” that honey-colored substance derived from fossilized tree resin that has, for centuries, been prized in poetry, mythology and jewelry.
Like Brown’s choreographic gestures and articulations, the ancient gem — also referred to by phrases such as “tears of the sun,” “soul of the tiger” and “petrified light” — exudes warmth and comfort, while at the same time suggesting something quietly divine.
Brown shared a glimpse of this quality with a group of students gathered last week at the Joan Weill Center for Dance, home of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for a masterclass with the choreographer.
“It’s Ron K. Brown week at Alvin Ailey,” joked Lisa Johnson-Willingham, the director of the Ailey Extension, during her introduction of Brown, who, as it happened, had not only accepted a Dance Magazine Award at Ailey earlier that week but had, just one day prior, premiered his new piece created for the Ailey company, “The Call,” at New York City Center as part of the Ailey’s 60th anniversary season. The premiere marked the seventh piece created by the choreographer for the company.
After thanking those present, Brown, clad in black socks and a shirt that read “In Unity There Is Strength,” got to work. Moving the students through a warm-up, he encouraged the softening of spines and the shifting of weight from foot to foot, subtle gestures recognizable in his work, which blends modern, ballet and West African dance. Then, without a break in tone or movement, he transitioned the room into choreography.
What Brown proceeded to teach was transferred into the body organically, rather than, say, by laying out precise counts. Here, instead of drilling movement, Brown shared what he saw in his head and encouraged the room to follow, to watch, to repeat, to get it into their own bodies.
“Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-drop. Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-hey!,” said Brown, pausing Mariah Carey’s “A No No” to break down a step that swept around in a circle one direction and then another. To demonstrate, he stopped and dropped his hips, emphasizing the weight of the turn. “Right now it kind of looks like this,” said Brown, gingerly stepping around himself before leaning forward and continuing, “and I want the feeling of the pelvis to be down here.”
“All technique is how you do it,” he said. “So, for me, it’s going to be how you get around. There’s the rhythm of it and the feeling of how you go around. But then, the other thing, is our relationship to how we go around and feel it is going to be a relationship to the ground. So, not up in space, in the air, but down.”
This sense of feeling and of connecting to the floor resonates through Brown’s work — a characteristic that can translate as communicative, both in the sense that Brown’s choreography seems to exist in conversation with the space in which it is performed and in dialogue with those that preceded him. Speaking of his new piece, “The Call,” Brown explained in an interview, “Someone told me that the ancestors are surrounding me, and I just need to listen and obey. So I think because of that element, I’m always introducing that idea into the work.”
As he continued to refine the choreography during the masterclass, Brown let the music change, requiring the dancers to adjust what they had learned to the new tempos. The modification could have been difficult for those accustomed to learning movement to specific musical markers, but it was made easy by Brown’s teaching technique. And while the music provided the rhythm or the beating heart of the class that evening, Brown reminded the students that the dancer, the physical body, provides the soul and the grace.
“I think sometimes, when people see us dance, and remember all this craziness, they think, oh, it’s magic,” said Brown, who formed his own company, Evidence, in 1985 at the age of 19. “There’s some magic to it, but it’s not. It’s not magic. We’re actually doing it.”
It is perhaps this insistence of locating the movement within the individual that contributes to the honesty and ease so closely associated with Brown’s work. Watching his choreography on stage, even the more formal qualities articulated in precise lines contain intimacy.
Towards the end of class, Brown encouraged the students to find their own way into this individuality. He noted the “dancerly” tension held in the necks of some present, a learned technique often used by those trained in dance to demonstrate ease and control. “Dancers want to show that we’re not disturbed, because that proves something,” said Brown, pulling down his shoulders and lengthening up through his spine in the familiar classical ballet way. “But I want you to be disturbed,” he said, contracting his shoulders forward, “because that’s when you discover your artistry.”
Top Image: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ronald K. Brown's "The Call." Photo by Paul Kolnik.