- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ronald K. Brown is known for the sources he plumbs — West African dance, spirituals, hip-hop, club dancing — in creating his life-affirming work.

More than anything else, though, his dances are defined by his deeply spiritual approach, whether the subject is the war in Afghanistan, the 119th Psalm, or Billie Holiday’s powerful life force.

All those matters will be touched on when his company, Evidence, appears at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a three-day stay beginning tonight.

“It was always critical to have a relationship to God in our family,” Mr. Brown says. He was also the kind of child who was always dancing around the house, pushing furniture aside so he could move more freely — but it took him a while to realize those two disparate drives could combine and enrich each other.

He saw that in some churches dancing to God was allowed, in others it was not. And he wasn’t sure what place there was for God in the concert dance world. He has spent the last 20 years fusing those two worlds onstage with rich incantatory movement, following his own path and bringing his spiritual quest to audiences all over the world. In recent years, he has given the Alvin Ailey company some of its finest new works.

Mr. Brown’s opening-night program (at 8 tonight) is a departure for Evidence with the evening-length “Blueprint of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday,” a collaboration with the jazz singer, Nnenna Freelon, who will appear.

He says the piece goes behind images like Miss Holiday being arrested while she was a patient in a hospital.

“Nnenna doesn’t sound like Billie Holiday,” Mr. Brown says. “She was trying not to, so she could present another side of her. ‘Them There Eyes’ was always a cute song, and Nnenna turned it into the story of Billie Holiday being raped when she was a child.”

When Miss Freelon sang, “I want it back, everything you took from me,” “It was fiery, fiery,” Mr. Brown said.

The piece had already had its premiere, but the women in his company — who stood silent during the song — were so stirred they came to Mr. Brown and said, “Ron, we want to dance to this part — ‘I want it back.’ ”

Chuckling as he recalls this, Mr. Brown says, “So the next day I changed it, letting them express the anger and the determination to heal yourself, not just the grieving, mourning part that I had in it.

“I think that’s part of the dance,” he adds, “how Billie Holiday has created a space for women to be all they can be.”

Mr. Brown often speaks of a work he’s created as a journey. Taken together, the three works on the company’s mixed program the final two nights descibe the arc of a spiritual journey.

It begins with “Order My Steps,” set to music by Bob Marley and Terry Riley pieces recorded by the Kronos Quartet. The work expresses confusion and doubts and finds guidance in the words of the 119th Psalm.

Next comes a world premiere, “Truth Don’ Die.” The words are Nigerian slang — about a man named Truth who is in a terrible accident and doesn’t die but lives to spread the word of God.

“So much of life is about burdens and responsibilities,” Mr. Brown says, “but this is about the joy of being alive. I’m so happy now, more than I’ve ever been in my whole life, why not make a dance about it.”

The program’s finale is Mr. Brown’s celebrated “Grace,” originally created for the Ailey company seven years ago.

“I recently asked someone who’d been in a car accident, ‘What’s the definition of grace?’ and he replied, ‘Getting another chance when you really don’t deserve it.’ “And I thought, forgiveness and these other things are so poetical, vague, not tangible,” Mr. Brown observes, “and then you hear, ‘Getting another chance when you don’t deserve it.’ That’s grace.”

WHAT: Ronald K. Brown and Evidence

WHEN: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

TICKETS: $19 to $45

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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