From Ronald K. Brown, dance that bears witness

The evening breeze made the first move in “Grace,” the final work on Ronald K. Brown’s program at Wolf Trap on Tuesday night. In the pause before the opening solo began, a gust lifted a length of fabric adorning the dancer’s costume. The white strand fluttered in midair for a beat, like a bit of spider’s silk tugged by an unseen hand.

How fitting. In Brown’s spiritually driven dances, you get the distinct feeling that something is animating the performers beyond musical counts and their own motor impulses.

At the very least, that’s what Brown seems to be after. His company, founded 25 years ago, is called Evidence, and many of Brown’s works express the intangibles of faith. If Brown’s argument is that the body — and his gift of eliciting its wisdom — is evidence of a higher power, well, he makes a compelling case.

The strongest case, though, is for his own esthetic: warm, satiny and understated. Do his dancers have bones? They have no hard edges. Brown’s dance vocabulary is like none other, a mix of West African, modern, street and club dancing that looks completely natural. Except that no ordinary humans move with the rolling fluidity of Brown’s seven dancers. He joined them in the popular “Grace,” created in 1999 for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and in the new work that opened the program, “On Earth Together/Everybody at the Table,” accompanied by lesser-known Stevie Wonder songs and commissioned in part by Wolf Trap.

The casual noodling-around that began “On Earth Together” looked like heaven’s housewarming party, with the dancers’ liquid motion unspooling to the gentle pulse of Wonder’s “All I Do.” Brown slipped easily into a slow-churned solo, the essence of contentment; at other moments, he melted into the ensemble, padding lightly in the background. Often the dancers turned their gazes skyward, as if seeking guidance from above, which gave this section the look of a praise dance. But the mood turned darker in later sections; glimpses of courtship and romance were followed by thuggery and brutality. We seemed to be witnessing a turbulent life span, telescoped into brief scenes. But after about four songs’ worth, each new one felt like overload. The piece ended oddly, on a downbeat, with a single dancer meeting death and a spotlight in the wings.

“On Earth Together” took its story in too many directions.   “Incidents,” from 1998, explored another extreme: restraint. Two women huddled over a third, motionless for many minutes; off to the side, another dancer writhed as if channeling their pain. Though cruelty was an obvious motif, resistance was the theme here, made all the stronger through rigorous self-control.

Brown’s ability to produce movement in endless, pleasing passages occasionally trips him up. But it takes courage to keep your dancers still. And as we found in those first moments of “Grace,” sometimes mysteries enter the stillness and deliver their own surprises. Kudos to Brown for choreographing not only passion but patience.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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