A Ronald K. Brown program is the dance equivalent of comfort food, especially on such a frigid, blustery night as Friday, when you were all but blown from 21st Street NW through the doors of Lisner Auditorium. Once in your seat, any vestigial chill melted away as the dancers from Brown’s Brooklyn-based company, Evidence, padded onstage, rolling their hips and shoulders with oily ease. Contented cats couldn’t be more mellow. Watching them was like being rocked to a lullaby.
The evening’s sweet opener, “Gatekeeper,” had to do with passage into the afterlife. If that’s what it’s going to be like, I can hardly wait. Who wouldn’t want to be escorted into eternity by this gentle welcoming party? Their loose joints made a moral point: No awkward uncertainty here. No judging. Brown senses a pervasive, benevolent power behind the natural world, and that is what he brings to the fore in his work. This piece, and “On Earth Together,” which followed, accompanied by Stevie Wonder songs, glistened with bliss.
With all this good feeling going on, it may seem unkind of me to point out that something was missing. But even if Brown is unwilling to bring judgment upon his creation, I must. Great art doesn’t just pull us in from the cold. It needs tension, contrast, texture. Put beauty to the test, I say; put it in the ring with the terrible. That’s much more interesting than simply serving goodness to us on a platter.
Well, Brown and I differ here. And so, in “On Earth Together,” his eight dancers are as slinky and soft-jointed and golden from head to toe as they were in “Gatekeeper.” It’s a gorgeous aesthetic, a mix of African, street, modern dance and other styles. Taken as a whole, the dancing forms a kind of corporeal porridge, everyone all swirled together, smooth and creamy.
The choreography was most interesting in the group sections, for the songs “I’ll Be Loving You Always,” with its silky, insistent love duets, and “All I Do,” the spongy footwork perfectly matched to the soothing, jazz-inflected musical rhythms. As Wonder’s voice rises in emotion, as it growls and churns, the dancing stays serene. No hard edges there.
“On Earth Together” developed as part praise dance, part testimonial to the enriching spirit of the human community. Brown himself became the understated catalyst: When he joined his dancers onstage partway through, the audience erupted in cheers, and for good reason. His presence had a luminosity even beyond that of his excellent (and younger) company members. He releases more deeply into the music, connects more fully with each performer, binds them all into a quietly ecstatic whole.
He also keeps the terrible passions of humanity at bay. Stevie Wonder knows they’re there and howls at them. Brown simply shuts them out, preferring to let Wonder work up his own storm while the choreographer and his dancers play in shallower waters, where the waves are gentle. His work, beautiful as it is, is less engrossing — less powerful — because of this.