Dance artists find inspiration just about anywhere, from fairy tales to world conflicts. But perhaps the most fertile area for inspiration is human relationships. For dancer/choreographer Ronald K. Brown, the death of close friend and mentor Sherrill Berryman Johnson from cancer, in 2010, and her memory inspired the positive messages behind the two works his company Ronald K. Brown/Evidence will perform Feb. 7 at the Byham Theater.
Part of the Brooklyn-based company's 30th anniversary tour, the program, presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council, marks the company's first performance in Pittsburgh in six years.
A poem on a plaque that Johnson gave Brown, titled "Angels of the Sunset," helped shape the underlying message of the program's opening work, "The Subtle One" (2014). The 20-minute piece, set to music from jazz musician Jason Moran's 2010 album Ten, takes its title from one of the songs on that album. Brown says that the title refers to God, "the one who whispers things into existence." The poem's message, and the spiritual heart of the work, he says, refers to angels and our ancestors walking the earth with us, inside us.
Brown, a Brooklyn native known for his works reflecting the African diaspora, has also created pieces for companies including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. In 2012, he choreographed the Broadway revival The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
Also on the program is Brown's 2011 piece "On Earth Together," set to music by Stevie Wonder, including alternate versions of such songs as "You and I," "Living for the City" and "Higher Ground." The 50-minute piece, also inspired by the memory of Johnson, is about making the world a better place. It features all nine Evidence dancers, including Brown, along with a multigenerational cast of local performers who recently auditioned here to be in the work.
Like Wonder's music, this work "is about love and being a compassionate world citizen," said Brown by phone recently from South Bend, Ind., where the company was performing.
Both dance works tap into Brown's highly musical choreographic style that fuses traditional African dance with contemporary styles.
"Music is one of the ways we share information with the audience," says Brown. "I tell my dancers to show me the music and the rhythm in their dancing."