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Contemporary dance piece gracefully combines styles to share heavenly story

“Grace,” a piece choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, fuses traditional African American dance with contemporary styles to present a visual story of love and forgiveness. (Courtesy of Julietta Cervantes)

"Grace @ 20"

Nov. 12 to Nov. 14

CAP UCLA

By Garrett Wilson

Nov. 13, 2020 7:22 p.m.

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown is providing lessons on salvation through dance in his piece, “Grace.”

The three-day event showcasing “Grace” began yesterday, shown virtually over the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s online channel. The event, titled “Grace @ 20,” will include a community dance class alongside discussions with Brown and other artists about dance aesthetics and the show itself. Brown’s piece, which will be performed on the first day of the event, winds through decades of Black music, fusing traditional African American dance with contemporary styles to relate a story of the gift of grace being given to a lost and graceless humanity.

“Your relationship to music (as a contemporary choreographer is) kind of either following the structure of the music exactly or kind of ignoring the music,” Brown said. “I (wanted to) come and marry the music, and let the music tell me what to do and tell the dancers what to do. So this is a partnership and a conversation.”

[Related: Dance student to teach his choreography in national tour]

According to Brown, the music is really what’s at the forefront of the show. Culled from the annals of African American songbook, he said the music in “Grace” flows from Fela Kuti to Duke Ellington, equal parts funky and soulful. With Ellington’s “Come Sunday” as one of the main inspirations for the entire show, Brown said more than just the groove and rhythm of the dancers are bound to the music that is steeped in Black history.

The dance’s narrative centers around a goddess coming down to earth to spread grace among its sinful residents, and it is based entirely on a lyric from Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” Brown said the story is a symbolic narrative that is communicated with the emotional honesty of the body and its movements and rhythm.

“There is a moment in “Grace” where everyone has rounded up, and you’ve seen some people who might have been fighting in the piece,” Brown said. “There’s this embrace… when the last ‘Come Sunday’ starts. In that forgiveness, there’s hope.”

The forgiveness intrinsic in love is one of the central themes of “Grace,” Brown said. Angels come down with the Goddess to commence with humans, and one of them is even tempted by the red-clad sinners into following their frivolous ways, joining them in dances that are ostentatious and energetic. There is a dichotomy in the dance, where Brown said the angelic movement becomes more grounded, less airy and full of ego than the attention-seeking sinners.

(Courtesy of Julietta Cervantes)
In a sequence where red-clad sinners tempt humans with their frivolous ways, Brown said there is a stark difference between the grounded movements of angels versus the airiness of the sinners. (Courtesy of Julietta Cervantes)

Matthew Rushing, one of Brown’s dancers and the associate artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, said Brown insisted that the dancers removed their own egos from the work in order to truly embody the feeling of the dance and, subsequently, of grace itself. Through this process of emptying, Rushing said he feels that abstract concepts like empathy and humility can be communicated purely through the movement.

“(It’s this) idea of when you’re empty, it’s not the most comfortable process or feeling,” Rushing said. “But it’s very clear that when you are empty as an artist, and there’s more room for the vision of the choreographer, and there’s also more room for what I would call spirit.”

Rushing is not the only one who feels the spiritual demands of “Grace.” Arcell Cabuag, one of Brown’s oldest collaborators and lead dancers, said when he switched roles, he had to shift his entire approach from the bawdy machismo of the sinner to the unselfish and grounded moves of an angel. It is precisely this more grounded movement that has its roots in the traditional West African dance styles of Sabar, bringing the dance and the style back down to earth, Cabuag said.

“You look at the different pieces that (Brown) has built,” Arcell said. “Some pieces have Afro-fusion, some have traditional West African, but this one has a lot of Sabar in it.”

[Related: Digital art exhibit uses shared screens to share themes of humanity, isolation]

The dancers in “Grace” weave in and out of all of these eclectic styles, making the dances that much more rich, communicating a sense of narrative progression, Brown said. The narrative – about a divine manifestation in human form coming down to bestow salvation in a world where everyone is saved – ultimately returns to the simplicity of grace and forgiveness. At the end of the show, Brown said every dancer – sinner and angel alike – is led to the back of the stage, where Heaven and salvation await them.

The spirit of “Grace” becomes more urgent than ever during a politically divisive and racially turbulent time, Brown said. Though Brown said he recognizes such a reality and the despair that is weighing on the hearts of many in the African American community, he remains optimistic. It is through grace – a concept that Brown has been searching for during the 20 years he’s been putting on this show – that there remains the hope to not give up and keep moving, Brown said.

“What is Grace?” Brown said. “It is getting another chance when we really don’t deserve it. … Now I have the real definition.”

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Garrett Wilson
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