By Rita Felciano
AFRO-SURREAL Why would you commission a choreographer for a work featuring performers stuck into costumes that hide their bodies? This anomaly didn't deter the 69 dancers who, in late April, auditioned at ODC Commons for a world premiere by Ronald K. Brown. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts wanted a site-specific piece to go with its current exhibition of Nick Cave's wearable sculptures, "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth" — and Bay Area dancers jumped at the chance to work with one of today's most thoughtfully intriguing choreographers.
Brown, who initially had wanted to become a journalist, found his way into dance almost serendipitously. Though he'd been fascinated with researching and writing articles on the way people lived their lives, dance allowed him to do that more indirectly, and also more deeply. He called his company Evidence because of his belief that we are products of the things that have shaped us — our culture, our roots, our families. The dry legal term "evidence" poorly suggests the physically and emotionally rich dances that have earned such a wide following for this modern dance artist, whose choreography is influenced by West African cultures. (Brown brings his company to YBCA Feb. 18-21, 2010)
Amara Tabor-Smith, a former 10-year member of Urban Bush Women, will perform in the Cave project. She doesn't think of Brown as a fusion artist. "The way I see him is that he modernized West African dance," she explained a few days after the tryouts. But her depth of admiration comes from a recognition that Brown's work is "infused with spirit." She made it as one of 13 dancers although she auditioned primarily to "soak up his energy and give energy in return."
Brown, who knew and admired Cave's evocative sculptures from afar, became interested in this project partly because of an experience at the Seattle Art Museum, where he encountered a diorama of African costumes and masks displayed on life-size figures.
"I would talk to the person with me, then slightly turn my head, and there were [the figures]. After a while I almost couldn't tell who was who," he explained. Being aware of a mask's mysterious power to hide as well as to reveal, he nonetheless also told the dancers he wasn't going to turn them into witch doctors or shamans because "we live in America, in a contemporary society."
Brown also insists he did not want to "collaborate" with Cave but wanted to have "his own dream." Since the suits in the actual exhibit are too delicate for performance, he chose a set made from raffia, the natural fiber prevalent in West African dance. Though visually different, they also allow one to sense rather than see the body. Being quite heavy, they may restrict a dancer's movement. During the audition, the choreographer worked with shuffling steps and close-to-the-body arms. He also worked on phrases from Orisha dances and Sabar steps from Senegal ("a kind of social street dance," according to Tabor-Smith.) There may be little or no music, perhaps only the sound of the dancers' feet and the whoosh-whoosh of raffia.
Speaking from Ireland last week, where he was setting work, Brown wouldn't commit himself to the length of the piece but revealed that, though it was originally planned for the galleries only, it would encompass YBCA's lobby area as well. "There will be a guide to take the dancers and the audience on a journey, so that whatever feelings we have, you also have — or it hasn't happened."
RONALD K. BROWN/NICK CAVE
May 28, 7 p.m.; May 30–31, 3 p.m.,
free with gallery admission ($5–$7)
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF