Evidence, A Dance Company Mixes Musicality and Movement

The New York group steps onto the Broad Stage this weekend, honoring Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and more

Beginning tonight, Evidence, A Dance Company arrives at the Broad Stage for a powerhouse of a weekend program. The eight-member contemporary dance troupe (four women, four men) is based in Brooklyn and led by artistic director Ronald K. Brown. On the program is The Subtle One, a musical suite by Grammy-nominated pianist Jason Moran; Come Ye, a tribute to the music and life of Nina Simone and Fela Anikulapo Kuti; and Grace, with music by Duke Ellington, Roy Davis Jr., and Kuti. We spoke with Brown about his inspirations. 

Give us a quick overview of the three pieces.

Grace begins with a sweet pleading, followed by a burst of movement and passion to follow a path, and then ending with resolution.

The Subtle One is quiet and brews for the first three sections. The fourth and fifth section take that concentration to fuel a dedication that is more explosive, responding to the layers in Jason Moran’s compositions.

Come Ye is a psalm, a call for all the people who are dedicated to fighting for their life. The music of Nina Simone musically and vocally has an invitation to hope. The third section brings levity before the dancers answer the call of prayer warriors and those who have taught us about creative protest. The final section, “Amen,” brings all of these ideas together, as the dances embody the fortitude of the warriors who believe that in a time of war, the destination is peace. The movement goes from Afro-Cuban movements of Ogun in the opening to Soli from Guinea and Yemayá from Cuba in the final, all mixed with the Evidence style of contemporary choreography.

How did the music inspire your choreography for Grace?

Since Grace was the first commission for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1999, I began to look for music that would allow me to say thank-you to Mr. Ailey. That impulse is how I came up with the title. He used Duke Ellington’s music a lot, and so I went and listened to Ellington’s sacred concerts. I came across many versions of “Come Sunday,” instrumental versions, quite a few sung by Mahalia Jackson and one sung by Jimmy McPhail. I owned a version by Jennifer Holliday, and those became the bookends for the piece. The lyrics dictated where I should go in the story musically.

I found Roy Davis Jr.’s “Gabriel” sung by Peven Everett, which has lyrics that speak of the angel of love, Gabriel, coming down. This helped with the images of Mother/Goddess coming down from heaven with angels to round up the people who were behaving as if they did not understand God’s grace. Once down on earth, I needed music to help the dancers live out the kind of “citified/urban” attitude that is sometimes far away from God’s grace. I was familiar with Fela Kuti’s “Shakara,” which is slang in Nigeria for “empty braggart.” The music drove the movement for each section.

The opening has Mother/Goddess in a conversation with The Most High, as she contemplates why she is needed on earth. There are gestures up to The Creator, extended palms asking for a hand and fits of urgency and compassion. In “Gabriel” the movement finds the dancers gesturing up and flying down, touching the ground and following each other on the path to the city. In “Shakara,” which is in the city, the movement has more of a punch and an attitude of aloofness and ferocity. The last section opens with the men playing a gambling game (in Brooklyn it was tossing quarters against a wall). Gambling is not allowed and definitely not on Sunday. The women are disappointed and show this in the first statements, and the section continues leading to a final embrace of forgiveness before the dancers return through the threshold back to heaven to get another chance. This is “Grace”—getting another chance when you really don’t deserve it.

"Subtle One" with Randall Riley and Brionna Edmundson
“Subtle One” with Randall Riley and Brionna Edmundson

Ayodele Casel

How did your musical selections for The Subtle One and Come Ye influence your choreographic choices?

Composer Jason Moran gave me a few CDs more than five years ago, and I spent time listening to decide which songs I would choreograph to. It was different for me to work from music first and discover what the piece was. The movement came out very quickly, and I was able to finish a section a day and eliminate songs that felt like they did not belong. I found the title intriguing and began asking people what thoughts came to mind when they heard “the subtle one.” I happened upon a definition that it is one of the names of Allah, “the one who whispers things into existence.” I began to ponder, Are the people walking on earth with this understanding and quality aware of The Most High, are they conscious of the ancestors walking with us or are they angels? All of these images seemed to inform the choreography.

Each of the sections of Come Ye dictated the movement choices. The first, “Come Ye,” is a call to prayer and urgency for salvation; the second, “Sunday in Savannah,” has the tone of people waiting for God to solve issues at hand; the third, “Revolution,” has a false start when Nina Simone stops the band and reprimands them for pushing too hard. This gave me the idea of people in the 1970s being dressed for liberation but getting lost along the way. The next sections provide a refocus. Kalakuta, the name of Fela Kuti’s compound, shows the dancers finally on one accord following each other in a box around the stage, until they exit in a strong line with both fists up high. The final section, “Coffin for the Head of State,” is full of prayer, to Jesus Christ in English, to Allah in Arabic, and to all of us in Yoruba. The movement takes on the pleading and urgency in all of these calls to prayer to demonstrate perseverance and determination.

Beautiful. And on the same theme of inspiration: Are there any particular aspects of Los Angeles that influence your work?

There are people in L.A. and in California who have shown me what is possible. I think of the legendary pioneer Donald McKayle, who teaches at Irvine and has a career that has covered every genre, from the concert stages to opera to cartoons. There is Debbie Allen, who I remembered seeing on TV in a variety show, 3 Girls 3, who also has a career with a range of inspiration—still teaching, directing, running a school, and choreographing. Two good friends, Melinda and Rodney Nugent, who were incredible dancers in the Alvin Ailey company and have forged incredible careers in L.A., are also sources of influence and resolve.