Page Auditorium was once again the venue for the heartwarming Ron K. Brown/Evidence dance company as Duke Performances continued its “Statements of Fact” programming with the full version of Brown’s One Shot, the beginnings of which had been seen here during the 2006 American Dance Festival. The dance work is inspired by photographs taken over several decades by Charles “Teenie” Harris, the Pittsburgh photographer also known as “One Shot” for his ability to catch the telling moment in a single frame. A small, highly recommended exhibition of Harris’ photographs, co-curated by Brown and Deborah Willis, and organized by Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture is on display at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies through April 9.
In contrast to the many contemporary choreographers who profess to be engaged with Narrative with a capital N, Ron K Brown is a storyteller. Like Teenie Harris, he gets maximum story into every frame — or, in Brown’s case, into the thousands of “frames” that make up every flowing sequence of beauteous movement. In his work, Brown has a poet’s sensitivity to exact relationships, which shows in his skillful combining of the motion not only with the music, but with the projected images of Harris’ work that he uses in One Shot. With the help of designers Clifton Taylor and Dalila Kee, he has created a dance of pictures and light as background, counterpart and partner to the live dancers.
But what struck you first, like a shaft of sunlight, was the love on stage. This dance is full of love.
One Shot is no glib cut-and-paste, not another shallow comment on “our media-saturated world,” nor a slick appropriation of multi-media style as an “artistic strategy.” One Shot is about as straight-forward as a work in an abstract art form can be, and, blessedly, it remains abstract, rather than illustrative, as it dances its stories.
A common motif in much dance from the African diaspora, maybe especially African American dance, is the honoring and praise of the ancestors. Brown honors these particular ancestors — Harris, and the community of people on “the Hill” that he photographed — by making new art that lovingly acknowledges the sources from which it was built. It is deeply, honestly, respectful of those sources — you can see those feelings in the bodies of the dancers, in their proud shoulders, their open rib cages, and the carriage of their heads. Knitting the peopled images to the dancing people on the stage is a bright cord of music, much of it by musicians with Pittsburgh roots or connections: Ahmad Jamal, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn. Other music included an incredible drum piece by Mamadouba Mohammed Camara, selections by Arturo Sandoval and Anonimo Consejo, and songs by Phyllis Hyman and Lena Horne (on whom Teenie Harris apparently had a crush — there is a beautiful photograph of her in the CDS exhibition).
Works by Brown and Harris share an unguarded quality, a relaxed naturalness, and probably Brown was attracted to Harris’ photographs as much for those qualities as for the photographs’ subject matter. You feel so at home with Ron K. Brown and his wonderful dancers. They are superlative artists, but they aren’t bragging about it, as it were. They are in service to the art, and that makes Brown’s theme of and call to service not only believable but compelling.
What I found most moving, though, in the dance and the pictures, was that sense of the value of home, of community, of connectedness to folks around you. As I watched the work, memory fragments from my early childhood in Ft. Smith, Arkansas kept floating to the surface, stirred up by the deep currents of emotion in the piece. Let me tell you, there was no culture — white, black or Indian — in 1950s Ft. Smith at all comparable to that of “the Hill” during the same period, and I certainly never glimpsed glamorous black women in leopard-skin pillbox hats on their way to hear, say, Charlie Parker. But I did go with my grandmother to the beauty shop, a little harbor of dependable friendliness and chat; I did visit my father and grandfather’s law office, where men in suits called to each other across the lobby and the elevator operator knew who I was; I did roam the park and the corner store under the benevolent eyes of the neighborhood’s adults. We didn’t have much culture, but we did have community, and One Shot tapped directly into my deepest understanding of what that means in daily life.
Ron Brown is sometimes spoken of as the torchbearer for African and African American dance, following the path opened by Chuck Davis and Alvin Ailey and the others who’ve come before, and while he is certainly involved with black history and culture, with telling his grandmother’s stories, he does his work in such a welcoming way that everyone can partake of its joys. That is a great art; I would even call it transcendent.
Ron K. Brown/Evidence will perform again at Duke July 7-9, during the 2008 American Dance Festival