Ronald K. Brown, Joyce Theater, New York

Choreography and religious conviction do not often serve each other, but when they do – as with Russian émigré George Balanchine or, more recently, Brooklyn native Ronald K. Brown – unorthodox wonders abound. These choreographers let spirit loose from dogma; Brown does so by endowing his humane, hopeful conception of struggle and salvation with a textured, evocative specificity.

In the first of two programmes this week for Brown’s 10-member ensemble, Evidence, the “gatekeepers” in the dance of the same name do not guard Heaven so much as ready the ground (or is it the clouds?) for us. To Wunmi’s plaintive voice above aqueous dance music, the dancers encircled the stage – caressing the floor with every step – to clear it of danger. They pointed arrow-straight arms like compass needles. More strange and wonderful, they seemed to trace with their fingertips the pattern of raindrops on a windowpane and volley a falling cloud back into the sky. The movement was deliberate yet soft. The sparks of association were constant without being insistent. Poetic logic, not compulsion, drove the flow of images.

Brown shares with West African indigenous dance the rolling hips, pumping knees, relaxed feet, wide, grounded stance and residues of story, but his textures are more varied and his meanings richer in ambiguity. Evidence’s gloriously eclectic bodies stretch the interpretative range even further and, in the troupe’s very inclusiveness, make the dances’ spiritual seeking feel genuine and worth cherishing.

Gatekeepers sets solos within the group in an intriguing design. The mass serves as witness to the individual angel’s soul-searching: guardians to the guardian. The show’s second offering, On Earth Together; Everybody at the Table, a paean to community backed by a medley of Stevie Wonder tunes, alternates sombre group unison with joyous group anarchy.

In near-monastic reflection, the tribe stretched their limbs in hovering balances as if over deep waters. With funky solos and sweetly companionable duets erupting all over the stage, the movement grew voluble and as staccato as a heartbeat. Adding to the social joy were a band with a whole posse of incredible singers who belted out the Wonder songs so fervently that as soon as it could the audience leapt to its feet.

Until Saturday,

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