Thursday, February 10, 2011


Ronald K Brown, Evidence, Individuality


I think we probably shouldn't use the term "classical music" any more. Sure, there are some things that are "classical," but when we say "classical," we really mean "performed by an orchestra of some sort in a concert hall." Philip Glass, John Adams and Thomas Adès aren't classical--Adès, after all is still alive. But I was at the New York Philharmonic when I heard Adès, so I get why the term "classical" is fixed to him, even if it's wrong.

I was listening (and weeping) this evening to Brad Meldhau's stunning new album, a great deal of which is composed and I was thinking: what makes something jazz and what makes it classical? My friend Jeffrey reminded me over the weekend that the dividing line is supposed to be improvisation. If a player gets the freedom to just make something up during performance, then he's a jazz musician. This doesn't take into account the codas or violin solos that are inserted into violin concertos (weren't those things made up too?) But I get the point. We have this vague idea that if we go to a concert hall, the music is written down and performed as it is written down. At a jazz gig, you are going to get something different every night. In my twenties, my friend Ned used to tell me that he hated labels for musicians period. He wanted the integrity and compositional sophistication of the classical world and the freedom of improvisation from the jazz world. He called himself a "modern" musician.

But I was thinking about this all over again on Tuesday when I went to see Ronald K. Brown and Evidence at the Joyce. My dance teacher--a jazz dance teacher--had always encouraged me to go. So I did.

Now, dance is full of these labels too. If you ever want a demonstration in physical humor, go watch a jazz class just as it is taking over a studio where a ballet class has ended. There are the ballet students, earnestly trying tombe pas de bouree glissade jete one last time. A jazz dancer will invariably follow, looking like a member of the Trocks, whether he is or not. Eventually someone will crank the music to drive out the ballet students and a few jazz dancers will work on some communal thing involving lots of isolations--things that annoy ballet dancers--to try to take over the space.

But the point is this: jazz dancers like to think that they are individuals. They like to think that their art form discriminates far less against body type. You hear words like "fierce" and "attitude" all the time in a jazz studio and woe betide the dancer (ahem) who comes across as too cerebral and not fierce enough. They don't like the idea of a corps de ballet, in which women maintain the same lines and work to match each other angle for angle.

The first thing I thought when I saw Ronald K Brown's dancers was that they were indeed incredibly unique. Some are tall, some are small, and some are not small at all. But they all have a jazz/Afro/Cuban vocabulary that requires intimate understanding of isolations, of arms and hips and a general looseness. What you get when you watch these dancers perform is a sense of dialogue between their individual natures. There is someone for everyone to watch. There is no "one star" whom you must watch with your binoculars, though I confess to really enjoying the men and Lilli Anne Tai in particular. There is no one "right way" to do the moves, though the choreography is in place. As a result, you, in the audience, feel a tremendous sense of freedom. And then there is the music, which ranges from Stevie Wonder to Nikki Giovanni and which feels overwhelmingly uplifting and spiritual--of the easy variety.

Brown's choreography is full of earthy moves--touching the earth, turning up the solar plexis to the sky. He is acknowledging the African diaspora in ways that are moving and that invite the audience to share in the joy of the dancers. For the most part, the groupings are just that--groupings--with the occasional coupling. This is a troupe that works together, and that is not in opposition with itself.

At times, though, as I can in a jazz gig, I missed a feeling of tightness. Sometimes in a jazz gig, I get annoyed with the solos which seem to drift, and wish for the clarity of composition. I would like to be delivered a well thought out thought. And this happened when I watched Evidence, though I know that the majority of the moves are in fact choreographed. The end of the world premiere piece, On Earth Together, involved a solo performed by Brown. For me, it left the piece hanging--I wanted a greater sense of closure. Since I don't know Brown, and had never seen him dance before (he looked great, but I suspect his talents weren't what they once were), it wasn't moving enough for me that *he* was dancing. I was reminded of going to see Mark Morris a few years ago. Morris danced a solo--he was somewhat portly--but he made the whole thing so funny, that even a novice like me could appreciate what he had to offer at that stage in his life and career. Unlike that evening, I felt disappointed when Brown closed out his own show, as though the pieces in the end were too similar in their use of dance vocabulary, and as though they kept making the same joyous and worshipful point over and over.

All the same, what remains for me, is the vision of eight dancers, all incredibly unique, giving shape and breath to joyous music. Just as the best jazz gigs are the most freeing and ecstatic musical experiences I know--unlocked as they are in the moment--so too does the most heightened moment of Evidence absolutely release something inside you that you did not even know needed to get out. It's the unexpected--the unwrittendown--that provides this kind of release. And it happens because of the individuality of the dancers is celebrated, and because the same kinds of physical demands that are placed on, say, the corps of ABT, do not exist in the jazz world.

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