If there's an Alvin Ailey of the modern age, his name is Ronald K. Brown. Coming up in Brooklyn as a young boy who loved to dance, Brown founded his own Evidence Dance Company at the age of 19. And though the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ultimately commissioned him for more work than any other choreographer, Brown continues moving to his own rhythm. His most recent achievements include providing all dance direction for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess on Broadway, and teaching his celebrated 1996 piece "Ebony Magazine: To a Village" to the latest incarnation of Evidence for a 2012 tour.
EBONY.COM: How were you approached to choreograph Porgy and Bess?
I got the email from Chris de Camillis from the American Repertory Theater saying there was this new reimagining of Porgy and Bess for the musical stage. That was all. “You’d have to do the workshop for it, the auditions, the rehearsals. Would you be willing to meet with the director and the musical arranger?” Of course I had choreographed Crowns: Portraits of Women in Church Hats. I said, “Yeah, I’ll check it out. My schedule with Evidence is a little loose.”
So I met with [director] Diane Paulus and [composer] Diedre Murray at a diner. And I said, “Well, do you want a choreographer for hire?” I probably wouldn’t have signed on for that. They said, “No, we need someone for the team. We need someone to tell us where dance should be.”
I hadn’t seen the opera, but I knew some of the music. Then when it opened at the American Repertory Theater in August , then there was an offer from one of the Broadway houses. And then it just hasn’t stopped.
EBONY.COM: What's led you to blend different forms of world dance in your work?
In the early ’80s, people were discovering the facility in their body absent of emotion. I don’t get that. For me, dance is about something. It’s a sensibility thing. Is it just about “I can dance,” or demonstrating the technique? In traditional dance, there’s already a purpose in the dance. In Guinea, there’s a dance you do if a woman is having trouble holding onto a child. In Côte d'Ivoire, I learned dances that you do at a funeral. Or in Afro-Cuban dance, there’s a dance for opening the way. There’s a dance for fire, there’s a dance for change. And so I use those rhythms or steps. And because I touch it and I’m from Brooklyn, I can change [the dances], but that could be the vocabulary to influence this contemporary work.
EBONY.COM: How did you start choreographing for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater?
I met Miss [Judith] Jamison when I was working with Jennifer Muller/The Works. In ’87 she came and put a piece on the company. I had this concert in a church in the Lower East Side. I had invited Miss Jamison and she came. I’m 21 years old, putting up the chairs in the church and she walks in. When you invite somebody like that, you don’t know if they’re gonna come. So then when she started The Jamison Project, she said, “Oh, I love your work, send me a videotape.” I was like, “Miss Jamison, I’m sorry, I don’t have a videotape.”
So then she saw “Ebony Magazine: To a Village.” I had set it on Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. She had seen it at a conference and said, “Oh, I gotta talk to you.” Now she’s at Ailey. She says, “Send me a video.” At that point I have a TV and a VCR, so I got her the video when she was at Ailey. And then she said, “I want to commission something from you.”
I have to jump back. I had choreographed my first commission in ’87 for this company, Barry Martin’s Deja Vu Dance Theater. We’re rehearsing at the Ailey school, and one day Mr. Ailey came in and sat next to me! He says, “Are you one of mine?” I said, “Mr. Ailey, I didn’t go to your school, but yeah, I’m one of yours.”
So I was like, How do I say thank you to Mr. Ailey? He loved Duke Ellington’s music. Where I’m coming from, Duke Ellington is [for] sacred concerts. I hear all these different versions of “Come Sunday.” Mahalia Jackson, tons and tons of them, instrumentals. I hear one with a man singing: Jimmy McPhail in the ’60s, probably the year before I was born. Bam, that’s it. I had another version with Jennifer Holiday singing. Okay, that’s the bookends. And then it just came, unfolded from there. After that, Miss Jamison said, “I think I want to commission something from you maybe every two years.”
EBONY.COM: What’s the origin of “Ebony Magazine: To a Village”?
I choreographed it for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in ’96. It’s been in the Evidence repertory probably since ’99. But I added four new dancers; actually, this company hasn’t done it. I was like, This company would be great in it. Basically the idea was, how do we go from the façade of beauty to the foundation of beauty?
EBONY.COM: The late Michael Jackson had a fluidity in his dance, whereas a lot of the modern pop stars he influenced are obviously just performing strict dance moves in a less natural way. Can you speak to that?
I think the issue is about how things become codified. When you see [some] people dance, it’s like, “Oh, you learned those steps.” It takes a minute for the spirit to get there. I can teach you the steps but I can’t teach you your spirit. For me, that’s the disconnect. With a lot of young dancers too.
We had this audition, 120 people came. And we were like, “#87! #87!” Because her spirit was like, out there! Just out there. It’s good for me to see that, because I don’t want to say all the young people are just dancing like robots, learning steps. Are you gonna wear it out, or is your spirit gonna wear it out?
EBONY.COM: It could be generational, because they grew up on BET and MTV videos in a way that older dancers didn’t.
I’ve seen some dancers, and they go out, and it’s like, “Oh, you’re in a video.” For me, the cultural issue or threat is when the ego gets in there. “I want to be it!” Like Sonia Sanchez says, “I’m just a human, being.” And I think sometimes we wanna be, instead of just being. I think for me that’s the disconnect.
EBONY.COM: How do you choose your music?
Initially I have an idea for a piece, and then images come that I think belong to that idea. Then I try and find music to help me dance out those images. But I love music. Stuff from Nigeria or all over is gonna help us tell a story. I’m using movement from all these different places. I used some music from Cuba, Senegal, Guinea. It’s gonna be a combo because I mix it up. Because I’m tryin’ to show you how we’re connected.
My composition teacher challenged me at one point. She said, “You choreograph for these collages and this movement. And the music is always like a collage. Can you please use one composer? Just try.” And I was like, lemme figure it out. And so we have a new piece called “On Earth Together.” All the music is Stevie Wonder. “All I Do,” “Evil,” “Blame It on the Sun,” “You and I,” “Jesus Childen of America,” “Living for the City,” “As,” “Higher Ground,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go.” And so she made us transition like six, seven years ago.
EBONY.COM: Do you still go clubbing in New York City?
I still hang out. The Shelter, definitely. There’s a place called Underground, a place called Afterlife. I had gone to that Body & Soul party at the same venue as The Shelter. But for me, once it gets kinda trendy, when the young people are going and they have these matching straight pants, I can’t get with it. [laughter]
We can’t all be 50 years old up in the club. But even though it still feels kinda cliquish, I try and go to those places where I can just dance from the spirit. To me, it’s the same thing in the work with Evidence. How the spirit can be free. It’s not so much about the ego and who’s cool.