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Demetrius Burns in Ronald K. Brown/Evidence's “Equality.” Photograph by Reed Hutchinson CAP UCLA

Healing Power

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence returns to L.A

Performance
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, choreography by Ronald K. Brown
Place
CAP UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, March 5, 2022
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

It was a joyous return to the stage after a long, hard 23-month slog through a global pandemic, and it was only fitting that the Brooklyn-based Ronald K. Brown/Evidence opened the CAP UCLA season at Royce Hall on Saturday night. The losses have been—and continue to be—profound, now including the many dead from Russia’s despicable war on Ukraine, making the performance a powerful and healing statement in the name of art.

Healing, as well, in the fact that Brown, who founded his troupe in 1985 at the tender age of 19, suffered a stroke last year and is on the road to recovery, making the concert that much more impactful and cathartic. To be sure, the choreographer/director has the receipts for his laudable career: Having set works on numerous companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and Philadanco, to name a few, Brown has also collaborated with composers such as Meshell Ndegeocello and Arturo O’Farrill.

Indeed, the opening piece, “The Equality of Night and Day: First Glimpse,” a work in progress, is set to an original piano score (heard on tape) by the Kennedy Center’s jazz director, Jason Moran, whose music is seemingly everywhere these days (Martha Graham Dance Company is also using a Moran-commissioned score for its latest premiere, “The New Canticle for Innocent Comedians”).

That said, the embarrassment of riches found in Brown’s newest opus also includes spoken word/speeches (pre-recorded, as well), by none other than educator and activist Angela Davis. Addressing the presumptions of family, community, democracy and justice, she also discourses on the surging of ultra-conservatism and its links to the disproportionate rates of young Black men being incarcerated, with the outcomes, as we know all too well, often tragic.

Ronald K Brown/Evidence dancers in “Equality.” Photograph by Christopher George

In the wrong hands, this kind of charged political commentary could be a distraction, or a device that might lead to literalizations, but in Brown’s choreography, “Equality”—meant to complete the trilogy that began with “Grace” (1999) and “Mercy” (2019)—the nine dancers soared, offering a variety of moves from whirling dervish-like pirouettes and unison dips to an upraised arm, circle-of-life vocabulary that had a distinct redemptive quality.

Clad in lush blue, choir-like robes designed by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya (this reviewer would have liked to have seen more of the bodies, with the men and women ultimately shedding their blousy tops to reveal bare chests and sports bras, respectively), the dancers also offered one-legged stances, jazz hands that easily morphed into trembling/twitching motifs and arabesques, as well as slow, resolute walking.

Solos abounded, as company members, including Charles Grant, Joyce Edwards, Christopher Salango and Demetrius Burns, offered arched backs, heavenly upward gazes and angsty writhings, Tsubasa Kamei’s sublime lighting contributing to the evocative nature of the work.

Moran’s score, somewhat reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert,” served as a mollifying component, but the faster-paced element with drums seemed an unnecessary reach. With Davis posing such mellifluous-voiced questions (near oxymoronic as relating to content and context) as, “How do we imagine democracy that doesn’t thrive on racism, homophobia, capitalism…” the work finally revealed a kind of closure, a sigh of relief, as the performers placed their wraps in that ever-constant circle, their lives—and ours—continuing.

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence in “Upside Down.” Photograph by Reed Hutchinson

Completing the bill: “Upside Down” from 1998, was, in itself, a reason to celebrate. An excerpt from the evening-length work, “Destiny,” it was created in collaboration with Roklya One of the Ivory Coast and her company Jeune Ballet d’Afrique Noire. Set to the music of Oumou Sangare and Wunmi, the number thrums with energy, excitement and unmitigated joy.

According to the program notes, the work “begins with the premonition of community mourning” and “makes use of the loss as a ritual and call for solidarity.” If this is grieving, please bring it on! The company, including Stephanie Chronopoulos, Austin Warren Coats, Breana Moore, Shaylin D. Watson and guest artist Daniel S. Harder, pulled out all the stops in this kinetic show of strength. With shimmying torsos, swaying hips and sky-high leaps, this Afro-Disco-esque piece rocked.

Teeming rhythmic phrases were deployed with ease, while the West African-inspired moves were exhilarating. With Olaiya’s costumes—loose pants for bare-chested men; bright orange, purple and green garb for the gals—adding to the aura of abandon, the number was infectious. Even when a male dancer, lying prone, was carried overhead by the group—the dancers were riveting.

And why not? The high-voltage movement language drawn from parts of the African diaspora that Brown has made his own, merging the emotional with the dynamic—and one that has been a hallmark of the choreographer through the years—should be bottled for all to experience.

Kamei’s lighting scheme, having been recreated from Brenda Gray’s original, also lent another layer of intoxication to this ode to jubilance. Gods and goddesses all, these indefatigable dancers, full of grace, determination and swaggering style, help make the world—one, unfortunately, in current disarray—a decidedly more beautiful place. May Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, now in its 37th year, continue for another 37!