Artists in their own words: Ronald K. Brown
Who: Ronald K. Brown
Where: New York, NY
Connection to New Orleans: He has visited New Orleans many times to conduct workshops, rehearsals, classes, and do all things dance while in The Big Easy.
Q: When is movement not important in life?
RKB: When you need to have peace. The stillness is important to find peace. Other than that, I feel like movement is essential to life. It’s about finding that balance between movement and stillness.
When it comes to the stage, I use a lot of stillness because I want the audience to see a person, and I want the dancer to look like a person. The stillness dictates that you drop any kind of performance that you might need and let yourself be seen.
I just finished teaching a class today at a university, and I told the students that I know there’s a pressure to always be on as a dancer. But there’s a way of working where you can get to a place of discovery and listening, and all you have to do is obey your body. You’ve trained, so your body knows what to do. It’s hard because not all dancers want to be seen, and if they’re always in motion then you won’t see them. They’re a dancer-person. I want to see the person who is sharing the movement--telling a story--through the body. You don’t always have to perform. You just have to tell the story and be honest.
We have to let ourselves be that vulnerable. I have had a company for over 30 years, and I’m always working, working, working. My grandfather on my father’s side and also my father would say to me, ‘You know, sit down.’ Those men taught me something about brotherhood and stillness.
In life, the stillness and quietness are important because that’s when you can actually hear.
Q: What do you feel like is a recurring lesson in your life?
RKB: That I don’t have to do everything. I’m quick to volunteer and do anything that comes up. Partly because I believe in service. I do trust that other people can do the work, but I am so willing to take things on.
I’m the oldest of four, so at some point when I was younger my mom started calling me ‘brother, son, uncle.’ I guess I was a little bossy. [Laughing]. But she would call me and say, ‘Can you thaw out the meat; I’ll be home after work.’ Then she would call again and say, ‘Can you season the meat?’ and then it was, ‘Can you cook the meat?’ I would do my younger sister’s hair before she went to school. I had an uncle that would tell me that it was my responsibility to take care of the family. This was when I was eleven years old, so I was always working, and I had a lot of role models showing me how to work.
A lot of the time I have my dancers looking down at the ground, and that has to do with what I just talked about. It has to do with compassion, and I also tell the dancers to think of themselves as becoming their ancestors looking down on them on Earth.
It’s funny because my nephew who is eleven years old comes to dance camp with me, and he’s decided that he also wants to be a filmmaker. He got accepted to a film school, so before he comes to Evidence camp, he’ll be going to film school. That’s that hard work. My sister says he has my genes [laughing], but I’m pretty sure he has her genes.
Q: When do you have no problem embracing the absurd?
RKB: It’s interesting to think about what one would consider absurd. One of my Goddaughters, who is eight, and I have a ritual. Her family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, so she goes with me to pick out a tree for my place.
I pick her up, I take her to my house, we have breakfast, and we go get the tree. Last year, I asked her, ‘What’s your favorite season?’ and half the time I wonder where her vocabulary is coming from, so I simply listen.
She tells me, ‘I sweat automatically, and I sweat too soon, but I like winter because I can play snowball fights and then go sledding. I can go sledding with mommy and daddy and we almost hit a tree once, and it was EPIC.’ She will say, ‘We almost bust our heads open, and it was EPIC.’
The vocabulary is like that all throughout our conversations. I wonder, ‘Where is this coming from?’ This is so outrageous to me. The conversations that I have with her and my nephew are just amazing.
Q: How would your childhood self respond to your latest creative work?
RKB: When I was in the second grade, my school took us to take the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I came home right after that and made a dance with a chair. I loved making dances from a young age. I would move furniture and force my family to watch the dances. My mom would tell me, ‘If you break something you have to pay for it,’ and I’d tell her, ‘But mommy I’m only ten years old.’ [Laughing].
Then my mom took me to a dance class right around the same time. This was at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Now my dance company, Evidence, has been rehearsing at Restoration for over ten years. All our costumes and offices are there. All of that is in the building where I took my very first dance class.
So I think the young boy in me is amazed.
And another thing. My associate artistic director and I took on the leadership of a pre-professional training program at the school. We have 15 students that are with us Wednesday through Saturday. One of the young ladies is dancing a solo from a piece I choreographed called ‘Grace’ for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1999.
I’m teaching Naomi, the dancer, that piece in the place where I took my first dance class. How is that for everything coming full circle?
I think that little boy is looking at me thinking, ‘Wow.’
About the show: The New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) and The NOCCA Institute present Ronald K. Brown / EVIDENCE for three performances at NOCCA’s Freda Lupin Memorial Hall on Friday and Saturday, January 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 29 at 2 p.m. With a singular gift of telling stories, Ronald K. Brown masterfully creates spiritual and earthy dances that move the mind and the heart with an “undeniable sense of joy.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) His superbly articulate dancers embody his unique style of blending contemporary dance with African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and dance forms. Capturing the spirit of community, the company will be joined by a multigenerational, New Orleans-based cast of 30 for the uplifting finale On Earth Together, set to the legendary music of Stevie Wonder. The local cast is comprised of students and faculty of NOCCA and the NORDC/NOBA Center for Dance (CFD), and participants of the CFD’s Senior Dance Fitness Program. The program also includes the poetically spiritual Four Corners, originally created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2013. Audience discussions with Brown and the dancers will be held following the performances on January 27 and 28.
Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.