What comes after grace? For the choreographer Ronald K. Brown, the answer is easy: mercy.
He created “Grace,” a rapturous masterpiece in which the secular and sacred meet, for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1999 as a thank you to its founder. Mr. Brown was in second grade when he attended his first Ailey performance; immediately after, he began to choreograph dances — that included making the playbills, too — for his family.
“Grace” turns 20 this year, and in honor of the occasion, “Grace (live)” — the first time the work will feature live music from start to finish — will be part of Bard SummerScape, performed by Mr. Brown’s company, Evidence. It came at the invitation of Gideon Lester, the artistic director for theater and dance at the Fisher Center at Bard, who described the first time he saw “Grace” as “one of the most exciting, spiritually uplifting experiences I’d had.” Adding live music, he said, was “an opportunity to see a well-known beautiful work in a new way.”
He had another request, too: a companion dance. And that became “Mercy.”
The music for “Grace,” a mix that includes Duke Ellington, Roy Davis Jr., Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Peven Everett, will be performed by Peven Everett and others. “Mercy” is a collaboration with the rock-and-soul singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello. The dances, billed as “Grace and Mercy” (July 5-7 at the Fisher Center, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.), are pure Brown: otherworldly, charged, urgent in their undulating sweep and unaffectedly fervent. His blend of modern dance and movement from African traditions weaves a rich, poetic language that has the ability to lift the spirit — even if it’s just for a night.
Mr. Brown, 52, relates mercy to compassion. Take a “situation where I’ve hurt you or you’ve hurt me,” he said after a rehearsal at RestorationART in Brooklyn, where Evidence is based. Forgiveness would be one response, but it can’t be only that. “I think that makes us victims,” he said. “It’s more that instead of holding onto hurt or pain, I can give you mercy.”
It’s a natural exchange: Grace is attained through mercy, and mercy through grace. That understanding even fed into Mr. Brown and Ms. Ndegeocello’s process. She told him that in their collaboration, they could give each other mercy, too. (He loved that.)
It was Mr. Brown’s idea to work with Ms. Ndegeocello; for Mr. Lester, it was a fateful pairing. She was performing at Bard, where she met Mr. Brown on the day of her show to talk about collaborating. She was already an admirer of his work. “I have a great love of dance,” she said. “You can see the music. Their relationship to one another has always fascinated me, not just in terms of time — like the beat or the pulse — but how it gives emotional color to movement.”
In “Mercy,” her music is grounded in acoustic guitar and either the vibraphone or a marimba — she is leaving it up to the percussionists — and, she said with a laugh, “what I think is the most soulful instrument ever, and that’s the Fender Rhodes.”
Ms. Ndegeocello, who will perform live, said she planned to include some vocal work but is “trying not to muddle it” with lyrics that might distract from the dance. “I don’t want to watch people dance to somebody singing a song,” she said. “So I’m exploring new regions in my mind on how to approach that and use my voice in a way to enhance the piece and not distract.”
While she didn’t work extensively in the studio with Mr. Brown and his dancers — she had videos and would send musical sketches — the time she did spend there was invaluable. During one rehearsal, she focused on the dancers’ breathing patterns. Mr. Brown danced alongside them to show her how the movement was broken down.
“Some people choreograph to the pulse or the tempo,” Ms. Ndegeocello said, but not Mr. Brown. The way he responded to the music “had nothing to do with the tempo,” she said. “He just liked a certain color and the circular feel it had. That’s how I’m approaching the vocals: in a ritualistic sort of way.”
It’s fitting: A meditative sense of ritual runs throughout Mr. Brown’s work. In “Mercy” certain potent images ripple, like waves, in the choreography. Dancers stand with their palms out as if to say, “I have nothing on me.” They hold their hands up in a manner of, “I give up.”
Another gesture is the arm held straight up in the air — it conjures the likeness of a noose, until the raised hand turns into a fist, which signals a shift into power.
“The dancers shouldn’t be defeated,” Mr. Brown said. “There should be no assault in ‘Mercy.’ There should be no punching you, the audience viewer, in the face.”
In essence, he is choosing power over anger, which suits his personality. Mr. Brown may get upset, but he doesn’t like being angry. “It’s not useful,” Mr. Brown said. “I love how in Chinese medicine, the image for anger is a blade of grass. It’s steadfast. So any time I’m in the stage where I feel angry, I’m like, just focus.”
Mr. Brown, who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, has spent years doing just that — devoted to his craft. It wasn’t easy at first; for one thing, he was too afraid to take a class. His mother, recognizing his passion and curiosity, sent him to a class when he was 8. “There were 80 girls, and I was the only boy,” Mr. Brown said. “I was like: ‘No, no, no, no. Forget this thing.’”
But by the time he was 12, he had figured out that he wanted to be a ballet dancer. “We had these encyclopedias, and I saw Arthur Mitchell,” he said, referring to the New York City Ballet star who was a founder of Dance Theater of Harlem. “I’m going out the door of our apartment to go to a summer program there, and my mom goes into labor with my little brother. I say: ‘Forget it. I’ll be a writer.’”
Just before he was about to begin journalism school on a scholarship, he returned to dance class; it was enough to change his mind. He asked his mother if he could give up his scholarship to study dance. Mr. Brown recalled her response: “She said: ‘I told you so. Get a job and learn how to dance.’ ”
Mr. Brown caught up fast and formed his company in 1985; he was just 19. By the time he choreographed “Grace,” he was 33, and already well established in the dance world. But “Grace” expanded his universe.
Both his company and the Ailey group have performed it numerous times over the years. Most contemporary dances come and go, but “Grace” has become part of the canon. Some years ago, Mr. Brown was asked by a member of his board: What would happen after he died? What would his legacy be?
“‘Grace’ will be there,” he said. “I’m grateful that the work will live when I’m on the other side.”
It’s not even so much about the dance itself. “It’s so people can have a conversation,” Mr. Brown continued. “What is grace? It’s a word. And that’s the thing about mercy. How do you dance this or how do we embody what that feeling is? I think that’s a wonderful conversation to have.”
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