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Arts

DANCE

Family values
Ronald K. Brown channels African-American life

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Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company delivers celebratory, soulful works to warm the spirit on Friday, Feb. 16, in Overture's Capitol Theater.

Brown, 40, born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, makes dances straight from the heart of African America. "As a little kid I liked to dance around the house," he says. "I made up my own dances. In second grade I saw Alvin Ailey's company do ‘Revelations.' That was the seed. I thought ‘Oh, you can make dances about church?'"

Brown's mother encouraged him to try dance classes, but the thought was too intimidating. "I'd tell her ‘there's 90 girls in there!' I just wanted to be cool." But the summer before college he took a workshop, deep in the heart of Brooklyn, from an ex-Rockette.

He landed a scholarship with modern dance matriarch Mary Anthony, in Manhattan. He loved her composition class, and at the postmodern pinnacle of the mid-'80s he decided he wanted to see regular people wearing ordinary clothes dancing in his works about family and God. He started a small company. He hung out at Alvin Ailey's school, hoping for new insights.

"Ailey always asked me, ‘are you one of mine?' I'd say no, I didn't come up through the school, but I think I'm one of yours anyway.' I couldn't do what I do if he hadn't gone first."

During his company's formative days Brown spent two years with Jennifer Muller's ballety, jazzy modern troupe, a perfect place to hone his own dance chops. In '86 he made the break. Evidence became a full-time venture.

"Twenty years later I have a beautiful studio in Brooklyn and a staff of 13 people. My dancers are on salary. We got health insurance last year! I have a friend who thinks my head's gettin' too big. She remembers me dancing in my mother's kitchen."

Brown's works still spring from family and church, usually cast in the larger crucible of the African diaspora. He's traveled the ancestral routes, expanding his dance vocabulary.

"At first I was afraid to bastardize African steps," he says. "In Ivory Coast, someone asked me why African Americans try to learn African dance. ‘It's not African once Americans do it,' he said. That was critical feedback. It's how I came to understand who I was and what I wanted to do. I lost my fear of mixing things up."

At the top of his game today, Brown's invented an Esperanto of movement built on the thick idioms of black Brooklyn, West Africa and the dance studios of New York. "I'll use an actual African step with different music, or I'll bring some Afro-Cuban movement to bear on a Guinean dance."

There's Muller technique there, too. "The message is both roots and fusion," Brown says.

Reviewers and audiences sometimes call his style hip-hop, but there's no b-boy in Brown's mix. "Hip-hop and club dances spring from the same African roots. What people recognize are the urban sensibilities in my work. That includes text - if I think a piece needs words, I'll use 'em. I've had poets reading in the audience, using flashlights. I've had 'em reciting on stage, moving with the company."

Brown's works - with or without words - are polyrhythmic verse. On Friday's bill is "Grace," a generous, joyful work in white and red that Brown originally choreographed for the Ailey company. "It looks much different on Evidence," Brown says.

Also on the program is "Order My Steps," from '05, and "Truth Don' Die," which made its debut during the company's 20th anniversary celebration last year. And that's a whole lotta show.

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