Looking for a respite from the political chaos that surrounds us? Care to leave your troubles behind? How about an escape to the world of energizing, uplifting dance? Catch Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE at the Kennedy Center through Saturday. Just a few strains of Meshell Ndegeocello’s glorious, gospel-singing, toe-tapping, hand-clapping renditions will bring back that smile that’s been missing too long.
Maybe it’s the feel of a pop-concert in an EVIDENCE performance, or the rich African-American heritage it calls upon, or just the fervor and physicality of the dancing. Whatever the reason, Brown’s fans are as loud as they are loyal, as heard in the rousing cheers at last night’s opening program, a trilogy of spiritual and thought-provoking dances.
…a spiritual experience. Beauty, power, and strength reach out from the stage to grab hold of an audience.
Brown has been celebrated for his fusing of the form, rhythm, and history of African dance with contemporary and urban dance styles. He’s chosen some talented technical folks to enhance the repertory program that includes companion pieces, “Grace” and “Mercy,” and a first glimpse of a new work, “The Equality of Night and Day.” Kudos to Resident Lighting Designer Tsubasa Kamei, a whiz at casting green and golden lights when needed.
In “Mercy,” Brown found an ideal collaborator in vocalist, composer, and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. In their first collaboration, Brown’s choreography captures Ndegeocello’s soulful plea for forgiveness to grant mercy. Percussionist and vocalist Abe Rounds begs for mercy as he wails, “mercy in the swelling water.” Live music is always appreciated by dancers (and the audience), and this troupe was especially vibrant, moving to the complicated rhythms of the Band For Mercy Guitarist Chris Bruce and Organist Jake Sherman.
The curtain opened on a set with musicians and gold banners from ceiling to floor. Dressed in black, topped off with a hat that traces roots to Africa, a solo dancer enters stage left. Authentically costumed by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya, Annique S. Roberts begins with a high kick, followed by a back bend, her hat nearly touching the stage floor. Her entrance sets the mood for this provocative piece.
Watching Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE in performance is a spiritual experience. Beauty, power and strength reach out from the stage to grab hold of an audience.
Closing the bookend dances, Brown asks for mercy and gives us grace. Originally choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1999, “Grace” is a journey from earth to heaven, set to the music of Ellington, Everett, Davis, Jr. and Kuti/Brown. Joyce Edwards, dressed in white and representing, perhaps, a guarding angel, soars above the other nine dancers. She is powerful and forgiving at the same time.
Other writers might note a trace of Alvin Ailey’s creations as Brown is a longtime fan of Ailey’s work and even has set a number of works on the company. For me, however, I recognized touches of the late Eva Anderson, founding director of the Baltimore Dance Theater. Like Brown, her works were abstract, reflecting her love of jazz music, and some recalling her early childhood in the segregated South. “Hambone,” a rhythmic formula used by African musicians and dancers, featured Anderson’s dancers doing everything from wild jazz movements to sweet, serene moves, much like the dancers, especially Edwards and the other unidentified women in “Grace.”
Guest artists Daniel S. Harder and Hannah Alissa Richardson joined the company for “The Equality of Night and Day, First Glimpse,” an ensemble piece that showcases both the talented dancers and Brown’s desire to get his message across. Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran created an original score, and we listened to the voice of Angela Davis demanding we pay attention to racial injustice, xenophobia, exploitation, and her familiar “power to the people.” Dressed in blue robes that were discarded and placed in a circle, the bare-chested men began to writhe in agony, first twisting and turning with one arm braced around their bodies, the other lifted high to the heavens. Moving, indeed, and deserving of another look.
Running Time: 2 hours with two 15-minute intermissions
The Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE and Meshell Ndegeocello presents a trio of dances now through October 23, 2021 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20566. For information on this program and 2021-22 Dance Series, visit here.
Heads up on the next contemporary dance program in the series:
The December 3-4, 2021 engagement of Dorrance Dance in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, scheduled to bring The Nutcracker Suite, will now perform a new program of mixed repertory including a world premiere holiday-themed jazz suite.
This new program features the D.C./Philadelphia premiere of critically-acclaimed “Basses Loaded,” weaving four bassists and four tap dancers together for a thrilling composition; the Bessie Award-winning “Three to One,” danced to contemporary artists Aphex Twin and Thom Yorke of Radiohead; and Dorrance’s celebrated “SOUNDspace,” celebrating what makes tap dance unique—that it is, at once, movement and music. The program closes with a full dose of holiday cheer, featuring Ella Fitzgerald’s timeless holiday songbook sung by resident Dorrance Dance vocalist Aaron Marcellus and danced by the full company.
Please see the Kennedy Center website for further information on this program.