Wednesday, June 4, 2014

New works by Ronald K. Brown, Asha Thomas at The Joyce

Shayla Caldwell in The Subtle One
(photo by Ayodele Casel)
After looking at Ronald K. Brown's aesthetic for years, I find that I'm no longer closely watching movements--which are largely familiar by now, a smooth and juicy contemporary blend of kinetic styles from regions and eras of the African diaspora--or even Brown's broader and equally familiar thematic tendencies. Instead, the just-opened spring run of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company at The Joyce Theater draws my attention to how Brown uses movement to deploy energy. After all, this season's world premiere, The Subtle One, set to a beautiful score by jazz pianist Jason Moran, is all about angels--and the idea of angels is all about activated energy.

And I see Brown as holding his dancers--and his people, mine, too--in a place of angelic condition, angels earthbound. A faithful and purposeful community, activated and engaged with the Radiant Invisible somewhere high and offstage, just along an oblique, illuminated path. Earth angels, as in his 2001 Ife/My Heart, in white costumes that swing and float and extend the body's flow into space. (White is the essential color of spiritual purity in African/Afro-Atlantic traditions.) As in all of his work, the body rises and falls and rises to connect levels of external and internal being. The arms lash circles and drives of energy along a variety of planes. A polyrhythmic conversation--with spongy moves and countermoves and arching suspensions--erupts between body and music across ground and air. Often moving to irresistible music, the lush dancing has a heightening and tranquilizing effect.

Looking at the work this time, I suddenly get why I'm often on the fence about Brown's dancemaking. I realize that I'm often seeing something very much like club dancers neatly arranged in shifting lines across space; each man or woman dancing in his or her own bubble of air, even when they move as one. I might enjoy the look, get into the feel, but I wonder if there isn't a little more that can happen.

Ife/My Heart and, to an extent, last year's Torch--specifically due to the uncanny, shapely, lighter-than-air dancing of Annique Roberts in Torch--are dynamic examples of Brown doing what he loves to do. By comparison, The Subtle One, opening Program A, seems thin and juiceless and bearing the company's most dispiriting tendencies towards earnestness, clearly not up to the responsibility of being a program's climax--and so, it isn't. Instead, IFE/My Heart and Torch conclude the show.

Guest artist Asha Thomas's New York premiere, Ghazals, which follows The Subtle One, opens with an annoying (because difficult to hear over the music) spoken word performance by Thomas while guest artist David Gaulein-Stef makes his entrance by gradually rolling across the floor from the opposite end of the stage. The lanky, rubbery Gaulein-Stef, a multi-talented native of French Guyana, is a marvel throughout. But the piece only picked up interest for me in its final moments when, for some reason, the dancers turned playful in a daffy way. Good for Thomas (who credits Brown as a special collaborator in this piece) for resisting making this closing passage an obviously romantic one. The horsing around here looks more like an exchange between two giddy siblings or two peers who have become really close friends. It looks real, and that's affecting. If Thomas does not provide a decisive theatrical conclusion to her duet, at least we take away and savor what appears to be a genuine feeling.

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company continues at the Joyce through this Sunday on the following schedule:

Program A: The Subtle One, Ghazals, IFE/My Heart, Torch on June 3, 4, 8 at 7:30pm and June 7 at 2pm

Program B: Ebony Magazine to a Village, Dancing Spirit, High Life, Upside Down on June 5, 6, 7 at 8pm and June 8 at 2pm

For information and tickets, click here.

The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at 19th Street), Manhattan

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