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Dance review: Ronald K. Brown's Evidence at the Ahmanson Theatre

March 11, 2012 |  1:48 pm

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown flashed a startling, broad smile while performing Friday night with  Evidence, a Dance Company. His Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe enjoyed its second-only Music Center appearance this weekend, courtesy of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center.

Pacing through his latest work, “On Earth Together,” to the music of Stevie Wonder, Brown's glowing expression caused us to consider what a grim business most contemporary dance has become. Beauty radiated from the Ahmanson stage, as Evidence, a wonderful troupe of 10, boogied through three of Brown’s sensual, sweet-natured works.

Born in the fabled Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood 46 years ago, Brown belongs to a generation of black choreographers who toggle easily between the contemporary urban vernacular, its African roots and dance post-modernism. He’s got Alvin Ailey’s distinct sense of place and Katherine Dunham’s Afro-Cuban earthiness; in his zeal for steady-state locomotion, he evokes the minimalist Laura Dean.  Most recently,  he choreographed the new Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess."

In the first piece, “Ebony Magazine: To a Village” (1996), company members -- mostly African American, one West African, and the superb Arcell Cabuag, born in the Bay Area of Filipino descent -- gave the simple dance walk luxuriant reading. They sank into their hips and chugged their arms alongside, sometimes tossing a hand in the air. Dressed by costumer Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya (a great look, the men’s flowing white pajamas neatly clamped by dark vests), they primped and vogued.

Their soft parade, padded and lush, led them to the stage apron for some top-notch action. Up and down, then in and out, they undulated their spines, in waves, frissons, sometimes a body hiccup. To rap music, the dance enacted a village’s communal rites (Brown has spent considerable time in Africa). Hands clasped in prayer position, church bells chimed, the ocean and its seagulls sounded. Three women, heads bent solemnly, circled a white-frocked dead body.

Ronald K. Brown
Brown's landmark work from 1999, “Grace,” a rich and hypnotic dance exploration of the sacred and profane, closed the program. Fela Kuti’s Afro-pop, Duke Ellington’s liturgical music and Jennifer Holliday’s gospel wailing provided the aural backdrop. The polished design environment juxtaposed Olaiya’s super-white dresses with men’s blood-red trouser/sarongs; all looked splendid. A hot-red rectangular backdrop morphed to cool blue. Loosey-goosey-almost-Watusi movement exploded into little air-turns. Cabuag, a stellar dancer of effortless precision, resembled Prince with his shock of black hair.

If you were asked to choreograph a dance pageant to the well-trod songs of Wonder, would you dress it in drab gray and blue and light it murkily? Probably not, yet in “On Earth Together,” Brown did just that -- to flat effect. He presented the work, which was created in 2011 at the instigation of Dance at the Music Center, as the evening's centerpiece of three.

The same choreographer who plumbs Fela’s Afro-beat note by note in “Grace” seemed stuck, perhaps cowed by Wonder’s magnetic force. There was lots of pulsing, highlighted by a recurring, just-bad dance motif, a backward step with the other knee drawn up to the sky.

Plodding through "Blame It on the Sun," “You and I" and "Jesus Children of America," as an audience, was far from painful; Brown is way too good. But the dancing was very literal and not sufficiently kinetic. “On Earth's” middle stretch, three similar-sounding songs, slowed perilously. It looked like dance-party improv.

“Living for the City,” Wonder’s masterful tone poem, in which the blind songwriter paints the urban jungle in sound, did not receive significant interpretation from Brown. Rather, at a key moment, three guys in hoodies poked around the upstage area. The song’s too iconic, beyond choreography.


Spring arts preview: Dance

Dance review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Segerstrom

-- Debra Levine

Top: The Evidence company performs "On Earth Together." Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

Below: Ronald K. Brown  and Annique Roberts. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times