Review: Ronald K. Brown Follows ‘Grace’ With a Dark Plea for ‘Mercy’

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — In the 20 years since Ronald K. Brown choreographed “Grace” for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the work has provided such a reliable spiritual high that bliss could almost be taken for granted. I wouldn’t have thought it could be improved. And yet at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts here on Friday, the unlikely occurred: “Grace” got an upgrade.

For the dance’s 20th anniversary, Bard SummerScape invited Mr. Brown’s company, Evidence, to perform “Grace” as never before: with live music. Bard also commissioned a new companion piece, “Mercy.” Both ideas were risky.

[Ronald K. Brown discusses “Grace” and “Mercy.”]

In its original form, “Grace” derives much of its lift from brilliantly selected recordings: two versions of the Duke Ellington spiritual “Come Sunday,” Roy Davis Jr.’s seminal club track “Gabriel” and Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat groove “Shakara.” Such a wide range is a tall order for any one band to replicate.

But there at the back of the Fisher Center stage was the extraordinary Peven Everett, who supplied trumpet and vocals on the original “Gabriel” recording. He and the rest of the band not only reproduced “Gabriel”; they also made it funkier. And their fluency in the other musical modes — putting aside Mr. Everett’s unconvincing Fela Kuti accent — deepened the work’s revelation of a line running through them, much as Mr. Brown’s choreography connects African and American dance. Only a stone could have not felt the spirit.

And what a cast of dancers: the blazing Annique Roberts, joined by radiant Evidence newcomers like Joyce Edwards, and the ageless Ailey star Matthew Rushing, who mostly blended in with the general glow.

This “Grace” topped its own rare heights, which only compounded the problem of the program: How to follow it? Perhaps unavoidably, perhaps intentionally, “Mercy” didn’t climb higher.

It is a much murkier, darker work. Where the set for “Grace” has an open door at its back, a path to heaven, the stage for “Mercy” is strewn with obstacles, strips of hanging fabric like columns. By the end, these have been cleared away, yet the work remains cloudy.

The music — by the vocalist and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, who led a live band — is atmospheric and melancholic, a wash of arpeggiated guitar, vibraphone, Fender Rhodes and harmonica. Hard-to-decipher phrases in Ms. Ndegeocello’s voice float through: “mercy,” “fate, “soul,” “love.”

In the choreography, layered with Mr. Brown’s usual skill, hands cover heads in protection, or are held up like white flags. A man raises a fist in defiant salute, and his body twists, turning his arm into a hanging rope. Dancers kneel. Dancers fall.

As in all of Mr. Brown’s work, there is a modesty to “Mercy.” His aesthetic is the opposite of in-your-face. Even in the glorious leaps and high kicks of “Grace,” there is a throwaway softness. But in that dance, there is also attitude, a quiet confidence that can make an audience scream; that the dancers can throw so much away proves how much they have. This communicative joy is absent in “Mercy.”

After partying like it’s 1999 with a live-music “Grace,” “Mercy” comes as a downer. Ms. Ndegeocello’s final words are about killing love. The dancers stare out, unmoving. This new, much less satisfying work accurately reflects the mood of 2019, when mercy seems to have gone missing.

In other words, “Grace” achieves grace, like an answered prayer, but “Mercy” is a plea for mercy, as yet unanswered. It’s honest, and the truth it tells should make us all the more grateful for anything like “Grace.”

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence: A Dance Company

Performed Friday at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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