Live-streamed from Joyce Theater, New York
February 18, 2021
Back in May 2019, a lucky few were fortunate enough to catch the long overdue return to Britain of Ronald K Brown/EVIDENCE: A Dance Company when the company performed at the Let’s Dance International Frontiers festival in Leicester. This live-streaming (available until March 4 as a recording), a continuation of the celebration of the company’s 35th anniversary, offers an opportunity to see more in a series of excerpts from some of the company’s most iconic pieces, and Mercy in full.
The selection demonstrates perfectly Brown’s choreographic style: one that draws on traditional and popular dance and music from many parts of the West African diaspora, with contemporary dance, ballet and spoken word. His dance frequently has a seriousness, a spirituality even, whether deeply thoughtful or more buoyant and freer. Music, or in the case of March, spoken word, is very much to the fore. The choreography is always expressive. Especially in the solos, it often seems like a natural, personal response, often as though the dancers are in conversation, with themselves, with someone unseen, or with us watching.
The just under hour-long streaming opens with a resplendent solo from Grace, Brown’s 1999 success created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that tells the story of a Goddess’ spreading of grace among humans, ultimately welcoming them to heaven.
Dressed in white, Annique Roberts looks like an angel. To a Jimmy McPhail recording of Duke Ellington’s spiritual ‘Come Sunday’, her dance is like a prayer. She sometimes whips and turns, arms flying around in a way that makes it feel like she’s trying to thrash something out with God. But then, and this crops up again and again in all the dances, those moments of power alternate with a gentle lightness, limbs reaching into space, extending beyond the fingertips or toes. suddenly, it slows and becomes grace indeed.
March, made in 1995, is an extraordinary duet set largely to words of his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. himself, and that speak of the value of man, of perseverance, dignity, and collective strength; and then to Bobby McFerrin’s version of the 23rd Psalm.
The words are immediately as inescapable as the outstanding Shaylin Watson’s opening solo. Her dance embodies absolutely the sentiments in the text. A repeated motif sees her hands held behind her back as if cuffed. An arm is also often raised, palm open. Equally important, is Demetrius Burns, who slowly traces a pathway around the stage, hunched over, oppressed. Later, they exchange roles, pray, and come together in freer, hopeful unison sequences that eat up the space.
Rather more breezy and lighter is She Is Here (2016) a brief solo that celebrates the legacy of mothers and teachers. The orange red backdrop suggests the heat of evening. As Roberts leaps and turns to Andy Gonzalez’s jazz score, her steps pull her back and forth. There’s a gorgeous liquid freedom to it all. It almost makes you want to get up and join in.
The opening notes of Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song For You’ sound like raindrops. Or perhaps they are tears. That would be appropriate for Brown’s For You is a heartfelt and very moving solo created in 2003 in tribute to the legacy and leadership of the late American Dance Festival codirector, Stephanie Reinhart. Daniel S. Harder reflects a deep sense of loss and memories of the person that was as he dances. Gorgeous moments abound not least his attitude turns en dehors and a couple of lingering arabesques.
I was less taken by ‘Palo y Machete’, a solo from One Shot, a work inspired by the life and work of noted photographer Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who extensively photographed the city’s historic African American community from 1935 to 1975, leaving an archive of over 70,000 images that document the black urban experiences of those decades.
Dressed in military fatigues and beret, Arcell Cabuag’s dance to ‘Loma Y Machete’ by Anónimo Consejo certainly captures the mood of the street, although I struggled to detect much other meaning. I suspect the lack of the usual backing images by Harris didn’t help.
In Grace, an opening at the back, light shining through, seems like a doorway to heaven. In Mercy, made twenty years later in 2019 but which has been called a companion piece, the feeling is very different. Now the stage is dominated by three unequally spaced fabric covered columns; and instead of white, costume designer Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya has the dancers in black tinged with purple.
Performed to a new score by Meshell Ndegeocello, Mercy focuses on seeking compassion, which we are told leads one to have mercy. It starts slowly. To quite melancholic music, a series of solos allow us to see each dancer as an individual although there are connections. The dance is always full of twisting turns. Hands cover bowed heads in protection, or are held up as if in surrender. Fists are raised in defiance but dancers also fall and kneel.
It certainly reflects the idea of “a physical journey towards justice in response to assault” spoken of in the programme note, but it struggles to communicate feeling. As the work moves on and the ensemble comes together, there is a sense of the struggle being resolved joyfully as the choreography becomes freer. A solo interlude by Roberts is remarkable for the eloquent way her back speaks. Pushed on by the more upbeat music and its beats, bodies ripple and ebb back and forth like a gentle sea swell. But is it really freedom? Perhaps “At the mercy of the shifting sea, “a repeated line in the music speaks the real truth.
Then, just as the dance reaches the peak of ecstasy, it stops. The dancers stand. They stare out. Ndegeocello score concludes with the repeated phrase, “Killing my love.” A reflection on modern times perhaps, when not only mercy, but understanding, acceptance, getting along, and so much more seems to in short supply.
This performance of Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE: A Dance Company is available on-demand until March 4, 2021. Visit www.joyce.org for details and tickets.