Ronald K. Brown/ EVIDENCE
“Walking Out in the Dark”
Stanford Lively Arts
Memorial Auditorium, Stanford, CA
October 26, 2002
“We must speak the truth to each other, or else stay buried in the dark,” says Ronald K. Brown at the beginning of his latest work “Walking Out in the Dark” presented by Stanford Lively Arts at their Memorial Auditorium. Brown’s endlessly kinesthetic and often eloquent choreography has placed him at the forefront of young American artists seeking light in the dark, although he is less known than he should be.
Both story-telling and ritual are express inspirations for Brown’s work and “Walking Out in the Dark” has the feeling and richness of both. More pared-down than many of his other works, it nonetheless has several startlingly potent images and exuberant moments with its melding of Afro-Caribbean and Western modern dance.
The four dancers, Brown, Darryl Spiers, Dierdre Nyota Dawkins and Arcell Cabuag, have the strenuous task of holding the focus of the audience for the full hour-long work with no intermissions, and the dancers are admirably up to the task. This quartet has an appealing variety of movement styles among them – it’s a secret pleasure to watch a choreographer work out a phrase and see the same movements on other rather different dancers – with Dawkins exhibiting a tightly wound torso supporting fluidly mobile shoulders and arms, and Spiers displaying the rangy grace and sharp-edged form of modern techno hip-hop.
Brown has said that his inspirations for this work come from a variety of sources, but notably, a ritual for young men in Burkina Faso in which they are buried and re-emerge ready to take their place in society. “Walking Out in the Dark,” which uses text written by Brown as well as music from Philip Hamilton, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Francisco Mora, Cutumba Ballet and M’Bemba Bangoura, expands Brown’s use of the call-and-response form for his dances, while also returning to the themes of rebirth and elevation.
At the start, five pools of light appear on the stage and, working in opposing pairs, the four dancers establish strong diagonal lines in and out of the center. Brown’s sharp jagged jerks melt into fluid releases as the pairs of dancers repeat and embellish phrases along two lines that mark an “x” on the stage. What might at first look like a husband and wife argument between Brown and Dawkins is given different spin when performed by Cabuag and Spiers. Or is it different? The quality of each relationship is thrown into question by the looseness of the gender roles (Brown has no qualms about women and men exchanging roles, as was demonstrated in Alvin Ailey’s performances of his “Serving Nia”) although all of them are clearly personal, as each couple struggles to make contact with one another. It is one of Brown’s talents as a postmodernist to recognize the smallest everyday movements, a “bring it on” gesture for instance, and be able to lade them with meanings, confrontations and back story despite a formalized setting.
As the pairings continue to work with little to no physical contact though, you find yourself craving the human encounter. The sense of alienation becomes palpable and when a touch does occur it has real impact.
“Walking Out in the Dark” develops slowly, which can make it slightly monotonous in places. Just as the pace is beginning to wear though, Brown lets the group take off in a vibrant exploration accompanied by drumming, which begins to look like ecstatic dancing. Then just as suddenly the drumming fades away, the dancers continue into the silence and then fall to the ground to be buried in a rain of sand.
In the second half, the dancers return, this time in brilliant colors rather than stark black and white. The emotional levels change almost imperceptibly which can be problematic. But the shift in color into deep reds gives an ebullient feeling of a rise to grace and the colors along with the exalted state of the dancers translates liveliness into an image of a heart pumping blood.
The piece has an episodic feeling, like short vignettes in the cycle of redemption. It has premiered in parts from 2001 through this year, and in some ways still has the feeling of a work in progress rather than a completed whole. Nonetheless it is the kind of work that amply displays the integrity for which Brown and his dancers obviously strive.