Stevie Wonder's songs are sources of positive energy. His lyrics bound along their own harmonic pathways, raising consciousness and spreading a gospel of love. This music also offers up a wealth of rhythmic and poetic inspiration for contemporary dance. On Sunday night, Ronald K. Brown and his New York-based troupe, Evidence, performed "On Earth Together" (2011) at the Ordway to several Wonder tunes, revealing new ways to experience a singular voice through the transcendent power of bodies in motion.
Brown's approach is built upon a variety of dance forms, most notably modern and West African. His company members fully embrace Brown's elegant sense of flow and fusion. Like the Bessie Award-winning choreographer himself, they expertly work the delicate tension between stillness and explosion.
During "Earth," the group engaged in perpetual movement that thoughtfully blended physical opposites: exuberance and containment. Brown avoided getting caught up in Wonder's iconic words and focused more on their essence -- the joyful complexity of being, the shout-out for change. The dance itself seemed to ride the melodies like a surfer takes a wave, waiting for moments of suspension, enjoying the ride and anticipating the next.
Spirituality played a key role in "Earth," but it was even more of a driving force in the two older works on the program, both originally created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
"IFE/My Heart" (2005) drew connections between African-American, Cuban and West African cultures in its exploration of ritual and worship. Here the fervent movement pulsed with desire for connection across any number of geographic, emotional or religious divides. The sound score also offered many moods, moving seamlessly from Art Blakey's combustible jazz to Nikki Giovanni's potent spoken word and, later, Ursula Rucker's meditative release.
1999's "Grace" delved further into the subject of praise -- praise for whatever divine force guides our destinies as well as the divine contact we make on a club dance floor. The trancelike movement mesmerized, drawing shouts of approval from the audience. It was the perfect ending for an evening spent dancing toward a higher ground.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.