By Carrie Stern
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
To some extent all rehearsal is the same. From the outside at this rehearsal at Restoration Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant, not much seems to happen. Performers talk quietly to each other, examining small moments of movement. Backstage paths are decided based on where costume changes are to be placed, costumes are discussed. On stage floor patterns are “marked,” indicated rather than danced dancers process the patterns. Hands show footwork in the air. Voices talk steps through—"Is that 4,3,2?" Suddenly, feet break into the movement of a phrase.
"Which column are you in?" someone asks.
Brooklyn boy Ronald K. Brown(‘s)/Evidence, A Dance Company opens its Joyce Theater season on July 9 with On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table featuring the music of Stevie Wonder sung live by Grammy-winner Gordon Chambers and Caron Wheeler (formerly of Soul II Soul.) A special opening night performance features singing by Andrea Sojola, NaTasha Yvette Williams, and Trevon Davis, members of the cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The singers, even when heard in rehearsal with only a piano, add energy and richness missing with recorded music.
On Earth, an expansion of last year’s première, features new sections created during a series of residencies. Everybody at the Table, originally imagined by Brown as a second half, opens the concert. Addressing generational relationships and the intangible gifts we receive from those who aid us on life’s road, at their heart the two works are a celebration of those who have, in Brown’s words, “passed over.” They also explore the social and cultural implications of Wonder’s music, which has deepened in its meaning for him since he began this work. Brown was watching a seven-year old boy direct seating at six restaurant tables when the idea for Everybody at the Table hit. After asking each person to respond to questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” the child determined the seating order. Brown was fascinated by this sorting of people based on their answers to these questions. In addition, the child directing adults was another adaptation of his interest in inter-generational relationships and heritage. The program is rounded-out by a 1999 commission, Gatekeepers. Set to music by Wunmi Olaiya, Gatekeeper explores inter-generational caretaking ending with Brown’s image that our ancestors wait for us in a line at heaven’s gate. On alternate evenings a second program consists of Evidence repertory.
It's hard to rehearse in a small studio, you can't do the movement full out; everything is done half size. But the dancer’s training belies the need to pull in, their desire to conserve energy — suddenly a leg rises in a perfect arabesque, opening into a sparkling turn. Focused without being intense, patient, easy, the company, including several new members, followed Rehearsal Assistant Clarice Young’s review breaking when the need to teach a phrase or to establish new roles and positions arose. “Um bop ditta dot bop,” Young said, demonstrating.
I'd forgotten how much fun rehearsal could be. Practicing an exit Associate Artistic Director, Arcell Cabuag, leads the line of dancers “off stage.” They're laughing about what they call the "crumble," a movement they clearly don't want to do. After conferring with Brown, Caburg teases, to company groans, that Brown wants the "crumble" performed. (In reality he does not.) Then the faultless Annique S. Roberts, who has danced with Brown since she was a student at Howard University, moves through the still dancers touching their shoulders. Later, I realize this gesture is part of the dance, but in rehearsal it almost seemed a gesture of reassurance. As she moved, a secret smile played around her mouth; she whispered to her fellows, they laugh. Otis Donovan Herring, another Howard graduate who acts as Brown’s stand-in during rehearsal’s freeing Brown to watch, teased his boss as he tamed a tempo to danceable speed after Brown set it too fast. This unstressed atmosphere, which in no way belies their seriousness of purpose, was clearly due to the company’s fond, warm relationship with their choreographer; to his respect and support of his dancers.
When the dancers begin a run-through with the musicians is when the richness of Brown's movement vocbulary is apparent. Like Jason Samuel Smith, the subject of a recent column, and others, Brown has developed a division-less, blended vocabulary of modern dance, ballet, soft-shoe, and social dance from Africa and the U.S. Bodies reacted swiftly to rapidly changing movement styles. Beautiful extensions folded into easy leg swings, a sideways stamp-stamp was followed by a quick contraction more African dance than Graham. Arms were never accidental. Every swing was as purposeful as the clear positions they opened to. I asked Brown if the U.S. social dance references were purposeful. He laughed. At a New Jersey event to sell work to presenters, someone who knew his work well commented on the freedom with which Brown incorporates Cuban and African social dance steps into choreography. “Why not American?” he was asked. The question, he said, “liberated me to use social dance appropriate to Wonder’s music.”
For Brown On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table represents both an artistic challenge — to interpret and give new meaning to the music of an iconic American musician, and a way to thank those that helped him on his way, his mother, uncle, and Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson from Brown University who Brown met shortly after his mother’s death. She believed in him, sent him her students as interns, critiqued his work, praising him until her death in 2010.
Evidence, A Dance Company performs July 9-14 at the Joyce Theater. For more information, including low-cost tickets go to joyce.org or call 212-242-0800. Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza is at 1368 Fulton St.