Over the course of the years, I lost my zest for Brown's choreography as I saw the work he made on his own company and set on others. I think I grew disappointed because much of the work looked similar relying on the same standard movement vocabulary and musical styles. So I was delighted to see his work earlier this spring on Ballet Hispanico. It seemed that the latin influence expanded his parameters, producing something fresh. Still, it was not until seeing his work at The Joyce Theater this week, that I remembered that feeling I had as a teenager.
Gatekeepers reminded me why I respect his work. The choreography seamlessly integrates African, modern and social dance styles with unending energy and dynamic phrasing. There is much homage to the ancestors, and the dance traditions he has studied. The pace is quick, as he moves bodies on and off stage. He has a definitive voice, and it is one that can grab and hold your attention.
But it was On Earth Together/Everybody At The Table that called up what dance means to me, and what I want it to be in my life. Set entirely to a soundtrack of Stevie Wonder, some recordings but mostly live covers, the work was a moving groove from start to finish. On Broadway, it is entirely in vogue these days to choreograph whole shows to the catalog of a popular vocalist, but not so true for the concert dance world. Watching this work, I just felt Brown realizing a dream he probably had dancing to these same songs when they dropped in the 70s, 80s & 90s. In vogue or not, at The Joyce Theater he and his dancers were going to have the time of their life on that stage rocking out to Stevie. We got to see a physical illustration of Wonder's soulful tunes, alternately dancing out the lyrical themes and letting the music filter through the bodies.
Brown's Afro-modern style was a match to the timeless moderate and uptempo classics, "Living for the City," "As," and "Higher Ground," with undulating shoulders and backs getting under the skin of the music in a way I had never heard it or danced to it before.* The relationships between the dancers displayed a humanity and real connectedness that was palpable to the audience. I suspect there were some built-in improvisational structures amongst individuals and couples, which kept the dancers fully present and in the moment. To be succinct, the dancers were having a fully choreographed dance party on stage, and I as an audience member felt like I was invited. Sure, Brown relied on some of his standard movement vocabulary and structures when it came to these sections, but he added variety with adagios to tunes like "Blame it on the Sun," "They Won't Go When I Go," and "Make Sure You're Sure."
The Wonder soundtrack added a layer of meaning to the usual tropes capturing the range and myriad of Brown's Diasporic music and dance influences. I saw an African-American man who has steeped himself deep in the traditions of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and found his way home with the music of his time. I, in turn, left the theater elated, overjoyed, and on the verge of tears while singing along "Tell Us/Your Sto/ry Now..." I wanted to be on stage dancing with them. On Monday night at The Joyce Theater, dance was doing, in my eyes, what it is supposed to do: telling a story, bringing people together, and moving - physically and emotionally - everyone there. I wanna keep dancing like that.
*I'm the daughter of parents who grew up in the 70s, so this is the music I was raised on.