Stevie Wonder, Again the Apple of Ronald Brown’s Eye

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Arts & Film, Dance.


When Ronald K. Brown meets the music of Stevie Wonder, you can expect the results to alter and expand your ideas of that beloved veteran pop musician’s songs. This always thoughtful, exploratory choreographer probes deeply in his works, often drawing on spiritual ideas and celebrating the connections between people.
Brown, whose company Evidence returns to The Joyce next week, began his exploration of Wonder’s music last year with On Earth Together, which incorporated five songs in which Brown focused on the idea of compassion. From the start of the project, he envisioned a full-evening work, and he has now added a second section, Everybody at the Table, set to four additional songs.
The two pieces will be performed together as a continuous work, and this time there will be live musical accompaniment from eminent recording artists and, on opening night, three cast members from Broadway’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which Brown choreographed.
“I’m excited about being able to develop the work,” Brown said recently by phone. “It’s an incredible learning experience; to keep working on it and trying to obey what’s right.”
He found, as he expanded the work, that two of the newer sections should open it. “I want to introduce the characters and where they lived. There’s a through line in the piece; we need to establish who they are, where they live in the world, and I think ‘Living for the City’ establishes that. Then it goes into ‘As,’ which further develops the relationships. I wanted to use some music that wasn’t so familiar, and then there’s music you feel you have to us. It was a great challenge.”
Another song to which he created a new section, “They Won’t Go When I Go,” resonated on a new and deeper level for Brown, who created a solo to it 25 years ago. Now, he found he associated it with the memory of the late Dr. Sherrill Berryman Brown, an influential dance educator who founded Howard University’s dance department.
“We are her legacy,” he said. “Literally, what the lyrics say: ‘They won’t go when I go.’ We’re left to do the work that she has imparted on us.”
When he spoke about On Earth Together last year shortly before its premiere, Brown sounded almost surprised that the piece was taking him in new directions in terms of partnering, which he was using more than in earlier works. Not only has that continued with Everybody at the Table, but he has expanded the partnering in one of the older sections.
Sharing the program with Brown’s two works to Wonder is Gatekeepers, which he created in 1999 for Philadanco but never staged for his company. He was inspired to return to this dance, which has a cast of seven and is set to music by Wunmi Olaiya, through his experience bringing different generations together in dance classes.
“I brought folks age 85 and older to the high school where I was teaching, had them dancing with these young people. There was an incredible dynamic with the young people learning how to respect the elders. I think Gatekeepers helped me connect with all of that—to these classes.
“The interesting thing is that the first image I had in making the dance was the last image in the piece,” he said. “I didn’t remember that until I came back to work on it. The first thing I thought of was people waiting for an ancestor to come. Then I had to go back to the research I did, to understand what the term ‘gatekeeper’ meant.”
In addition to creating and touring with his company in the time since Evidence last appeared at The Joyce, Brown had his Porgy and Bess experience, making his Broadway debut and winning an Astaire Award last month for his choreography.
“I was glad to be part of a team that was so open,” he said. “When I started, that was one of the questions I asked: ‘Are you looking for a choreographer-for-hire?’ They said, ‘No, we need someone on the team. You let us know where dance should be in the show.’ That willingness and openness—‘bring us what you have, take us where you want to go’—was remarkable.”
He worked intensively on such scenes as the on-stage killings and the funeral as well as the more overtly danced sections, such as the exhilarating picnic scene, in which everyone on the stage dances. “It was funny, during the audition process, they kept asking me, ‘How many dancers do you want?’ I said, ‘Everyone’s going to dance.’”

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, a Dance Company
July 9-14, Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave. (at 19th St.), www.joyce.org; times vary, $10+.

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