Root Bound

Acclaimed young choreographer Ronald K. Brown finds his inspiration in Africa.

When Ronald K. Brown was a kid in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it was his mother who took him around to his dance classes. And while his own interests shifted and changed (in second grade he was aiming for a ballet career, in high school for journalism), Alice Brown kept the dance faith.

In his teens, when he finally decided to take a year off to give dance a full-time try, Alice was not surprised. "I told you so," she said. Her son, recalling the time in a telephone conversation from Florida, was "blown away" that she knew before he did just what he had.

"She gave me a real sense of encouragement," he remembers. "'I'm your number one fan,' she'd say. But she also told me to keep the humility there, too."

The late Alice Brown is still essential to her 35-year-old son's work. When Brown brings his troupe, Evidence, to Centennial Hall this Saturday night for a single concert, they'll perform "Walking out the Dark," an Africana piece that grew out of his response to her death. And lately her humility lessons have loomed large. As dancer, choreographer and artistic director, Brown's been getting the kind of accolades that come along about once in a dance generation. He's won the usual awards and fellowships, but it's his dance commissions for other companies, especially Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, that have pumped up the paeans.

In December, dance critic Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker that in Brown the Ailey company had at long last found a choreographer worthy of its dancers' gifts.

"The Ailey dancers have always been fabulous," she said. "And in my experience they have never had a repertory worthy of them. The situation may be about to improve." That situation is Judith Jamison's enlistment of Brown as choreographer. Acocella lavishly praised Brown's fusion of authentic African movement -- "knees bent, the buttocks out, the feet flat on the floor" -- with postmodern dance and ballet, all of it keyed up by an intense spirituality. Brown's "Grace," which the Ailey company performed in Tucson two years ago, is "ancient and modern, holy and witty," she wrote.

Acocella is only one of many singing the Brown hosannas. Wherever he goes, headlines tout him as the Ailey heir who is surpassing the master. Nevertheless, Brown is staying humble.

"The part about how Mr. Ailey wasn't a choreographer--that's terrible," Brown says. "His choreography is just one aspect of what he did. ... But it's an honor that she sees me that way."

Acocella's right about Brown's extraordinarily exhilarating mixture of African and American styles. When he threw himself into dance full-time in New York, he studied ballet and modern, but he wasn't seeing dances he wanted to dance. Almost immediately, he said, "I felt I had to choreograph," and in 1985, at the age of 19, he founded his own company. At first he was intimidated by African dance. He says the only "remnants" of authentic African movement in America are "what black children do when they want to dance. That kind of stuff was in my work -- movement close to the ground."

Eventually, after going to West Africa to work, he realized that African dance was not a unchanging catalogue of fixed gestures.

"In the mid-'90s I started choreographing in the Ivory Coast, for four or five weeks at a time. Being there I saw ... African dance in the neighborhoods, in clubs. It was constantly evolving. It was traditional dance with a whole wide range of movements." He realized "I could use any movement I have: ballet, whatever, it's all up for grabs. Now I'm free to dance out a particular image. I'm completely free."

The Centennial Hall concert opens with "Ebony Magazine: to the village," a dance that uses the image of African tribal community as a metaphor for spiritual wholeness.

"It's a piece about people dealing with the façade of their beauty, taking 'pretty' literally, Ebony magazine, the idea of being on the cover," Brown says. "The idea is to go from that way of being to something simpler, more trusting. ... It starts off in a somber place and ends up in a jungle sound."

Set to Nigerian music, the work opens with the eight dancers marching single file in a procession, the bodies held stiffly, their "posture up away from the ground." They move "closer to the earth ... and start connecting with each other in a circle."

"High Life" is a dance about migration that draws a parallel between the great African-American exodus from the American South to the North, and the flight of West African villagers from country to city. The movements switch back and forth from American to African until they become virtually indistinguishable.

"In the sections about the South, African movement is there," Brown says. "In the West African part, you start asking, is that African? Is that the Charleston?"

"Walking out the Dark" is a recent piece that reflects on the "tradition of going into exile for spiritual contemplation. We don't have that tradition in the West." The choreographer says that during his mother's final illness six years ago, he scaled back on his work and spent time at home with his family. When Alice Brown died, he plunged back into touring and dancing, but his family still needed him.

"My sister kept calling me on the road, saying, 'When are you coming home? I need you here.' The piece grew out of these kinds of conversations, contemplating us just needing that time away from the world and away from that kind of busy-ness."

A medley of music from Philip Hamilton, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Francisco Mora accompanies the dancers on their spiritual journey in "Walking out the Dark." In a finale that mimics an initiation ceremony from Burkino Faso, the dancers have "50 pounds of dirt come down from the 'sky' and bury us. ... We're asking the gods to help us get to this place."

Brown readily agrees that spirituality is enormously important in his work.

"Dancing," he says, "is one of those art forms where ultimately it's going to be the spirit talking."