Ogun is a spirit of metalwork with a machete. Oshun is a spirit of rivers. And they are dancing eye to eye in strength and prayer and celebration, to an Afro-Cuban tide of piano and winds. Ronald K. Brown and Evidence will perform New Conversations: Iron Meets Water, a world premiere with live music by Grammy-winning musician Arturo O’Farrill at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. (July 25 to 29, 2018).
Brown and O’Farrill met in Havana some seven years ago.
“I loved his music,” Brown said, “and he appreciated the work I had set for Malpaso (Dance Company).”
They wanted to create dance and music together, and the Pillow gave them a rare chance to build a new work from the beginning. Choreographers often come to O’Farrill with a finished movement, Brown said, wanting music to accompany it; he had never had the chance to work with movement from the beginning, and Brown had not worked with live music often.
Choreographers and musicians rarely have the resources to come together, said Jacob’s Pillow director Pamela Tatge. But the Pillow values the alchemy that happens only when music and dance respond live to each other.
In March 2017 Brown and O’Farill came here for a week for a development residency. O’Farrill came with a piano and a laptop, Brown said. He would choreograph movement, and O’Farrill, watching, would say “I think the flute should come in here” and play a duet between his keyboard and his computer.
In five days they created more than 20 minutes of new work. Then they went into the recording studio, and Brown heard the music again with real instruments and responded to it in turn.
The work has gone on for a year and more, and they have both valued it — “the chance to both be artists and discover this thing we’re creating together.”
Now they will return to the Pillow to show New Conversations with live music for the first time. Tatge is excited to see the finished work that she watched in its first days here.
“Arturo is an extraordinarily nimble composer, and he can play so many instruments,” she said. “We saw him playing solo.”
And Brown reveals what he is in praise of at any given moment, with open-handed joy. He is a deep researcher, she said, and a deeply spiritual man and maker.
“He asks his dancers to think about the energy, the force field they are embodying in each moment.”
The Cuban folklore he has embraced in his New Conversations reaches out to a living force that runs through the world — wood and stone, water and earth, birds and animals, everything living and not living.
The Yoruba faith from Southwestern Nigeria came to Cuba, Brown said, and there it met Caribbean forms of faith and music. In the Yoruba tradition, Orishas, spirits, take human form. Ogun the hunter wields a machete. Oshun is a goddess of rivers, a woman as sweet as rain.
They are the water and the iron in his conversation, and they hold a tension in the piece, Brown said, in the men searching and the care the women are bringing to the stage.
“We’re trying to create a space that is right,” he said. “Ogun is a hunter, and he believes in justice. It is important to remember and share in that idea. I keep encountering people who think it’s ok to have hateful ideas, that it’s justified. I believe in our hearts we know what’s right, and hating people is not right. Discriminating is not right. And feeling you’re better than other people is not right.”
He values warmth and care and connection, in his work and beyond it.
“Ron is one of the most generous choreographers I’ve ever met,” Tatge said, “in the way he reaches out to his dancers, and the communities he connects with are forever changed by his kindness.”
He is here for a week longer than most of the Pillow’s visiting artists, as faculty at the Pillow school, working with students on a new piece he is developing for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and at the same time, Evidence’s associate artistic director, Arcell Cabuag, is leading a week of free workshops to meet people in the community and make them familiar with phrases of West African and Afro-Cuban movement Brown has drawn on and evolved through O’Farrill’s music.
Often in Brown’s choreography, the dancers are moving toward each other, Cabuag said. They are facing each other, not looking out at the audience or squaring off for a dance battle. They look into each other’s eyes and dance in unison. They experience the movement together, and their shared energy draws the audience in.
At the Pillow, Evidence will also perform excerpts of two earlier works, including Come Ye — the first work Pillow director Pamela Tatge ever commissioned, before she came to the Berkshires — to the music of Nina Simone and Fela Kuti.
Over the years, Brown has developed many works tapping into the Civil Rights movement.
“I knew I had a Nina Simone work in me,” he said.
As the U.S. headed into war in Afghanistan, one day he was listening to Simone as he cleaned out his apartment and heard her deep voice over an agile and resonant beat, singing
I say come ye who would have peace —
It’s time to learn how to pray.
And there it was, he said, the message he wanted: “In war, the destination is still peace.”
So he created a work for people who believe in creative protest, who put will into action.
With a similar energy, Evidence will also perform moments from Dancing Spirit, Brown’s tribute to Judith Jamison, a soloist and later artistic director of the Alvin Ailey company. She is a majestic woman, he said. Very direct. She has a gigantic heart and a sense of humor and drive, and she is an incredible leader.
In one movement he uses, a dancer performing as Jamison reaches forward to where she wants to go and backward to where she has come from. She begins solo, and then a dancer performing as Alvin Ailey comes in to join her, and others invoke her work in the schools and dancers who have worked with her.
“You extend your arms,” he said, “and they don’t end at your fingertips. Your spirit goes beyond your limbs.”
This story first ran in the Arts & Entertainment section of the Berkshire Eagle. My thanks to A&E editor Jeffrey Borak.