Brooklyn-based choreographer Ronald K. Brown brings love to the space.
“I looove Ron K. Brown,” says a woman nearly out of breath. “I don’t know what it is.” She’s taking a water break toward the end of the choreographer’s recent open master class, which has paused only once in 90 minutes. With half an hour to go, its 31 other attendees—all ages, some novices, some pros—are tearing across the floor of a gymnasium in a Baptist church two blocks away from Barack Obama’s Hyde Park home.
Exhilaration, fatigue, laughter and a lot of sweat mingle in the air. Ronald Kevin Brown, under layers of sweatpants and T-shirts, is all over the room, dancing the phrase he’s built piece by piece while nearly hip to hip with those struggling with its rhythmic nuances and his fast, syncopated footwork. The braided beats of four live drummers echoing off the wood floor and brick walls make it far too loud to talk. As the dancer rejoins the class, she cups her hands around her mouth and yells to Brown’s back, “I love you!”
By phone from his hotel room, Brown says he doesn’t usually teach classes for the general public while he’s visiting another city to choreograph on commission; he and Evidence, A Dance Company, which Brown founded in 1985, are based in Brooklyn. But before he’d even arrived for his first creation in Chicago—Gye Nyame for Muntu Dance Theatre, which premieres Thursday 2—word had gotten out. “[Muntu president] Joan Gray said to me, ‘People know you’re coming,’” he says with a laugh.
Brown’s hallmark, and the source of excitement about his work, is his fluency with movement languages across geographical and temporal boundaries. Congolese, Cuban, Guinean and Senegalese styles meet contemporary concert dance’s ingenious traffic patterns and visual counterpoint. (Earlier this year, Evidence toured Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa as part of the inaugural DanceMotion USA, performances of American companies abroad funded by the U.S. State Department.)
When Brown creates for a group of technicians such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he’s tugged toward his formalist side a bit more; the supple torso work and naturally released arms fall into a tighter unison. Collaborating with a company dedicated to the research and presentation of traditional African dances offers a new set of possibilities.
“Muntu is incredible because they are familiar with the different techniques I might be using,” Brown says, “though not used to how I’m going to pull from those techniques.” He says the Muntu dancers have been eager to give “150 percent” and that his focus here has been to help them expand their range. “You have to keep the integrity of the step, and not have your ego try to take it over because you want to be the most dynamic, the most energetic dancer. Some movement is just quiet, and when you discover that, you go, ‘Oh: I don’t have to hit-hit-hit-hit-hit it.’?”
His reminder to breathe through the steps goes hand in hand with the inspiration behind Gye Nyame. Its title is the name of an Adinkra symbol from Ghana meaning “the omnipotence of God, or that God is everywhere, in us, in the space, so it’s how you walk with that understanding,” Brown says.
“And if you understand that,” he continues, “how do you work in the world? It’s not just: ‘I’m Kevin Brown from Brooklyn, I’m 44, and this is what I’m doing.’ I’m my mother and father’s son. A grandson. The child of God and all my ancestors. Am I going to walk around and be foul? Treat people in ways that aren’t appropriate? Or act as someone who really understands that God wants us to love each other? It’s wanting the dancers to understand that, then create a space where we celebrate that, bring that to the space.”
Gye Nyame enters the world Thursday 2 through Sunday 5 at the Gary Comer Youth Center.