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Dance, Dance-Theatre Review Print

Testify Truly

July 13, 2006 - Durham, NC:

And now comes Ronald K. Brown, who, being duly sworn, does depose and say....

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence testifies in movement, dancing a body of truth. No need to con or convince: like good historians and great writers, the choreographer and dancers just lay out the case in the order that brings the clearest understanding of reality. Their sincerity as truth-seekers cannot be doubted, nor can the truth of their telling.

Many choreographers lay claim to being storytellers, but few with as much justification. And very, very few show us the stories with such glorious movement. Oh yes, they can dance. Even when the piece still needs some work, as was the case with One Shot: First Glance, which the troupe premiered at ADF in Page Auditorium on July 13, the vignettes are so vivid that in retrospect you may think you heard the characters speaking. One Shot was inspired the photographs of Charles "Teenie" Harris, who worked in Pittsburgh from the 1930s into the 1970s. Also known as "One Shot," Harris captured images of the lively black community in Pittsburgh. His technical prowess and eye for the telling moment make him a fitting source for Brown, whose instincts for the revelatory are just as good.

Danced to music by Anonimo Consejo and Billy Strayhorn (who, though we claim him as being from Hillsborough, was raised in Pittsburgh), One Shot comprises three sections. The first is danced by men, the second by men and women, and the third by women alone. Each section is deliciously dynamic, and you can almost see the flashbulbs popping. In all of them, Brown skillfully uses the formal qualities of the dance to express the interplay and balance between the individual and the community he or she helps to form. The women-only section was particularly strong. Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya's brilliant costuming bolstered our understanding of the three types: the white-gloved, hard-working right-living lady; the party girl/prostitute; and the priestess. But the piece seemed truncated — or, rather, not fully grown. It ended without feeling complete.

Not so with the fabulous Order My Steps, from 2005. Using musics from the Kronos Quartet and Bob Marley, this work is all there. The range of emotion is terrific. The frightened searcher lost in chaos; the enraged resistant; the devoted disciple of faith — all surge across the stage. There is some mighty, mighty dancing here, both in the groups moving in unison and in the stunning solos. The section danced to "War" was so powerful that even those who don't normally attend dance, those who prefer instead the theater of military operations, might be provoked to comprehension.

The evening's final work, High Life, took the dancing even further. The choreography is great, almost cinematic in its flow through time, but the dancing! High Life distills hundreds of years of African-American experiences into 33 emblematic minutes, and every second of each minute sizzles with incredible energy. We go from a slave auction with its vile come-ons to strolling with ladies of pleasure to toting with the porters at the station. We feel the drag of heavy baggage, the aching shoulders from pushing broom, the dejection of jobless men and exhausted women. We feel the thrill of the gospel music and the happiness that goes with really big hats. Aches and sorrows fade as we dance, dance, dance, tearing it up with our brothers and sisters. But wait! That was just the prologue. Fela Anikulapo Kuti's pulsing rhythms come roaring through the auditorium. And now come the men in dashikis, and here are the women, dresses made from dashiki cloth, slit up to there and with a quivering tail feather of cloth. Can you say what freedom looks like? In the glorious physicality of this dancing, I caught sight of that greatest of abstractions.