Six dancers dressed in white run their hands along their arms, cleansing themselves with invisible water. They push against the air as if sliding into a pool or rising from a river. The gesture is simple, repeated over and over in choreographer Ronald K. Brown's work Water. The dancers' arms glide behind their backs, then dart into the air in a graceful reinvention of a traditional Senegalese dance. The percussive isolation of body parts common in West African dance has been smoothed out. Against the rhythm of a text spoken by performance poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor, the movements shimmer across the dancers' bodies like the eddies of a current.
The 33-year-old Brown, with his company Evidence, has made a big splash in the dance world, appearing at prestigious festivals and addresses such as Jacob's Pillow, the Dance Theater Workshop, and the Joyce Theater. Brown's work has been performed by premier companies like Philadanco and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His choreography blends into a seamless language, gestures from West African traditions, modern and jazz dance, and the most contemporary experiments in motion.
Trinidadian poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor describes her role: "I weave in and out of the dancers. I'm telling a story like a griot, like a very ancient woman." The writer brings age-old wisdom to today's issues. "The piece for me was about cleansing," she explains. "It was a celebration of the lives of black men that we are losing so quickly." The violence that threatens young black men has special significance for Boyce Taylor, whose son, Malik, is a successful hip-hop artist, formerly with the socially conscious rappers A Tribe Called Quest. "I dedicate this piece to my son. He's a young black man. I worried about him living in America."
Boyce Taylor believes Water can bring "healing to the community. Parts of Water talk about being responsible for your brother and snatching him up by the neck if he's not going on the right track. We see seven-year-old kids running to the store at midnight, and we don't follow them home and dress down their parents. We say these young men are bad because they commit crimes, but really crimes were perpetrated on them. We need to take responsibility for raising them as a community, not just the parents but the teachers, the neighbors, the aunts, and uncles."
The decision by Miami-Dade Community College to bring Water to the Joseph Caleb Center Auditorium in Liberty City might be a step toward accepting that responsibility. In the past MDCC has presented dance in venues where white audiences feel comfortable. Consequently, notes Georgiana Pickett, the artistic director of the cultural-affairs department at MDCC's Wolfson Campus, "dance audiences have been primarily white." Pickett hopes to diversify the audience without losing faithful fans. "There's a lot of fear about going to the Caleb, but people have to get over that," she says. Sandrell Rivers, who manages the auditorium, calls the Caleb "Miami's best-kept secret." As patrons visit the facility, Rivers says they discover "they don't have any problem. We have not had one a single incident." Greg Jackson, who directs the Diaspora Arts Coalition, an organization promoting the auditorium as a center for Africa-inspired arts, agrees. Reflecting on Brown's upcoming performance, Jackson waxes poetic: "If his work is about water healing the community, then I want the Caleb to represent the well!"
Water as a source of death and new life has an important meaning in African arts. While preparing the choreography, Brown told Boyce Taylor: "I'm having this vision of water. I want you to write something about everything that water stands for." The poet delivered a manuscript the following day. "The words just came," Boyce Taylor says, "because water has followed me from my beginnings. For years and years I have done poems, performances, and installations about water. Sometimes I feel I'm gonna die by water, which is not a bad way to die." Until that time comes, Cheryl Boyce Taylor and Ronald K. Brown will bring the restorative power of water to the Caleb for all of us.