By SUSAN BROILI
It was a night to remember – and, then some.
Choreographer Ronald K. Brown receive the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement on Thursday, June 28, 2018 at Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Then, Brown and his company Evidence also delivered a dynamic, heart-felt program greeted by an especially enthusiastic audience packed with ADF staff and students, community members and even Brown’s uncle and his uncle’s family – the same uncle who, Brown had said in opening remarks, “gave me all my first jobs.”
American Dance Festival director Jodee Nimerichter opened the Scripps/ADF Award ceremony as she spoke of Brown’s “Incredible commitment and gift for bringing dance to everyone.” Nimerichter also noted that in 1985, when Brown had founded his company Evidence, “he was sure to take us on a spiritual journey.” Brown had made his first ADF appearance in 1991 in the Young Choreographers & Composers’ program, the director added.
The Scripps/ADF Award honor comes with a $50,000 check and a “Sammy” statue.
As the main presenter, dancer/choreographer Dianne McIntyre said that the Scripps/ADF Award is “reserved for the most renown innovators in our field. He [Ronald K. Brown] has shifted our perception of what dance can be. His style is very distinctive and his influence is everywhere. He deserves the highest acclaim for past achievements and for what’s to come.”
In his comments, Ronald K. Brown noted that he and Dianne McIntyre shared the same birthday: July 18. (Brown was born in 1966.) “She is one of my heroes.” Brown also acknowledged the support of former ADF co-directors Charles and Stephanie Rinehart as well as current director Nimerichter’s backing. Nimerichter had come to New York to ostensibly speak with him about his ADF program this summer. But when she got there, she told him that he would also be receiving the Scripps/ADF Award.
“I was speechless and kind of blown away,” Brown recalled.
Brown talked about his early interest in dance when he was growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, N.Y. “I was dancing around the house. My mother said:’ If you break something, you’re going to have to pay for it.’” And, yet, as child, he had been afraid to take dance classes, he said. At age 12, however, when he had been about to audition at Dance Theater of Harlem, “My mother started going into labor so I said [to myself] that’s it.” So, he turned from dance to writing. At age 16, when he danced during the summer, however, he finally knew that he had to pursue dance as a career.
Brown also gave the audience a heads-up on the program they were about to see.
“Torch” (a new work) is dedicated to Baba Chuck [Davis],” Brown said.
Davis, founder and director of the Durham-based African American Dance Ensemble, died at age 80 on May 15, 2017.
While two male dancers had originally performed in the 1985 “Lessons: March,” this time two women perform those roles in the current ADF program, Brown said. “The two women are going to kick it,” the choreographer added.
In the 1995 “Lessons: March” excerpt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s recorded words provide the “score.”
“’Walking Out the Dark’ started out as poetry but I figured out it was a dance,” Brown said.
As for the finale: excerpts from the 2001 “On Earth Together,” Brown pointed out that the cast included 28 members of the Durham community, ages 8 to 70-plus.
The Ronald K. Brown Evidence program uplifted with a sense of community and inclusiveness.
The new dance “Torch,” dedicated to Baba Chuck Davis, kicked off the program in which there was a sense of mission to ensure that Davis’ fostering of “Peace. Love. Respect – for Everybody,” embodied in the dancing of his company, the African American Dance Ensemble, is not forgotten. It will continue to grow strong for Brown shares the same goals of community building. Both Davis and Brown were influenced by authentic African dance that they had witnessed firsthand.
“Torch” began with dancers forming a tight circle that a female dancer entered where she was lifted up on a platform formed by the dancers’ hands so she could emerge as a torch figure.
Then, there were a number of times in which dancers lifted each other.
A sense of loss was also part of this work for loss is central to the idea of carrying a torch. In his arms, a male dancer carried a limp female dancer, her arm dangling lifeless. A man and woman danced together. When she existed, he expressed loss as, to heart-beat drums, he spread his arms wide and slowly danced in a circle.
Near the end, Ronald K. Brown entered and danced across the stage to join the other dancers and they all proceeded to dance as one in an African groove as audience members’ shrill yips cheered them on.
In the excerpt from Brown’s 1995 “Lessons:March,” the recorded inspirational words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and music by Bobby McFerrin provided the sound score for a duet performed by Annique Roberts and Courtney Paige Ross.
To King’s words that some believe that “The Negro is not culturally ready for integration,” a female dancer, dejected, head bent, arms by her sides, walked slowly into the wings.
King also quoted from John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island”: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
And, one of the women comforted the other one by gathering her up in a hug as an a cappella women’s chorus sang a beautiful version of “Psalm 23,” in which they substituted “she” for “he” in such lines as “She makes me lie down in green pastures. She restores my soul … and fills my heart with song.”
The excerpt from the 2001 “Walking Out the Dark” offered a compelling, transformative experience hinted at by the poem that was included in the program and presumably written by Ronald K. Brown: “meet me in the temple/seeking/healing/thank you/celebration/faith/life.”
Performed by the quartet: Arcell Cabuag, Shayla Caldwell, Annique Roberts and Keon Thoulouis, this work began with the two women center stage to a recording of Sweet Honey and the Rock’s a cappella “You left me standing … And, as the two women were face down in the spotlight, we heard the group sing “Oh, death, where is thy sting.” To recorded African drumming and cow bell, one of the women jumped high, knees bent.
At the end, there was no music just the sound of dancers’ breathing and footfalls. This work ended with a spiritual cleansing as all four dancers fell flat on their backs, arms and legs spread wide as they were drenched by a deluge of water that thundered down on them.
Ronald K. Brown joined his 10-member company in excerpts from the 2011 “On Earth Together” to mostly upbeat, recorded music by Stevie Wonder. It began with the company’s five men and five women dancing to Wonder’s “Living for the City” about life for a black family in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era when the father and mother works for little pay and their son can’t find a job “Because where he lives they don’t use colored people.”
As sirens blare in Wonder’s song, the cast appeared to duck for cover by getting down on the floor. But, they couldn’t be kept down long. They rose to dance together in a big circle.
Near the end of “On Earth Together,” Brown came out and danced then moved backwards into the wings.
As Wonder crooned “Don’t You worry ‘bout a thing,” some of the Durham community members came onstage soon joined by the rest of the group. Then, the community group and Brown’s company danced together to Stevie Wonder’s “Here We Are on Earth Together.” And, even the smallest children knew ALL the moves.
And, one of those children was seen dancing after the performance as a young boy and his dad headed for the the door to go to the parking deck. The boy’s energy seemed to have no bounds as he tumbled and danced his way beside his dad to that door. His dance move happened to be a Cabriole, a ballet jump he repeated a number of times. In it, one leg leads and the other leg beats against the first one. That little boy did not miss a single beat.