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Come Ye: Ronald K. Brown, foreground, is changing American dance.

Prayer Warrior

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown comes into the light

By Gretchen Giles

Other people are making pretty dances," says choreographer Ronald K. Brown during an early morning phone call from a Washington, D.C., hotel room. "Besides," he laughs, "I think that mine are pretty."

Pretty? Maybe.

Beautiful, dense, emotional, spiritual, poetic, layered in metaphor and the language of desire? Absolutely.

Brown, 38, is quickly becoming the premier modern-dance choreographer of his, or any, generation. Bringing his Evidence dance troupe to the Napa Valley Opera House April 2-3, Brown and company perform work that springs from history, poetry, popular culture and the intensely private longings of universal humanity.

"When I started the company at age 19," Brown says, "my feeling was that when I went to the theater, I didn't recognize myself. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but then I discovered modern dance. People had their shoes off, it was more real. But then I realized that the dancers were still looking up at the balcony, avoiding the gaze of the audience. They were doing dances about ice.

"So from the very beginning, the idea was to create stories; I wanted to be seen as people first, so that when you're talking about the human condition, you're talking from that spot. Our ability to find God in ourselves and work in the world with that being clear in our intentions is very important to me. I understand that it's not important to everyone and some people would prefer that I simply do duets of a man and a woman dancing together."

Instead, Brown creates dances about the changes in the lives of those liberated from slavery after the Civil War and those fleeing West African villages for 20th-century cities a century later ("High Life"). Instead, he composes a lament to the late choreographer Stephanie Reinhardt, co-founder of the American Dance Festival ("For You"). And instead of duets, he has created a piece based on the solitude of the monk's cell and the yearning toward others that constantly gnaws at us when we are alone but not true with our souls ("Walking Out the Dark").

New on the program for the NVOH is Brown's latest work, "Come Ye," based on the Nina Simone song of the same name. A call to peace, hope and the fight to stay alive, "Come Ye" struck Brown just as the United States was first invading Afghanistan.

"I was listening to [Nina Simone's] music, and it summed up how I felt because, like a lot of Americans, I was just in a state considering the idea of being at war," Brown says. "It is this incredible calling for prayer for those who are living in fear. OK, that was the jewel I needed to start to dream about this piece about a summoning of prayer warriors who are dedicated to peace but understand having to fight for your life. In a time of war, the destination is still peace. It became about coming into alignment with other revolutionaries from history, like Nina Simone, and her creative protest; she was about the equity of humanity across the board.

"When Nina Simone passed away," he continues, "I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness, should I do this piece?' Because I didn't want it to be a gimmick; that was never the purpose. But then it was, 'Of course,' because the piece is about the legacy. Because of [Simone] ascending, we have to do this piece."

Later Brown chuckles, "We choreo-graphers--it's as though we're always only working on one piece our whole careers. My point is that when there's damage in our relationships, then God puts us on some sort of punishment that makes us figure out what it is that's making us not be available. Once you realize what it is about your own behavior that you can change--because that's the only thing you can change--then you can come into the light."


Ronald K. Brown and Evidence perform Friday-Saturday, April 2-3, at the Napa Valley Opera House, 1030 Main St., Napa. 8pm. $15-$35. 707.226.7372.

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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