Ronald K. Brown and Arturo O'Farrill's newest joint work sparks "New Conversations"
November 8, 2019
By Jamie McCrary
Choreographer Ronald K. Brown and composer Arturo O'Farrill aren't just artistic collaborators—they're kindred spirits. Brown, founder of the Brooklyn-base dance company EVIDENCE, and O’Farrill, Afro Latin Jazz Alliance founder, are storytellers. Their work— separately, and collectively—weaves together the narratives of African and Latin cultures, challenging audiences to examine the human condition through a new lens.
This November, New Conversations (2018), Brown and O’Farrill’s newest joint work, makes its DC-area premiere at Strathmore. Hallmark to both Brown and O’Farrill, New Conversations is centered around the religious, musical, and movement-based traditions of Afro-Cuban culture. The piece explores the triumph of overcoming adversity and the joy that comes from doing it together.
“For me, the work is very celebratory. There’s a strong sense of [joy, without] the presence of oppression,” says O’Farrill.
New Conversations is meant to move—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The work tells the story of different Afro-Cuban orishas (gods) and how they relate to our human lives. It is a spiritual complement to each artist’s culture and love for storytelling.
Each vignette in the piece features a different orisha, who represents an aesthetic, like wisdom or healing. Brown, who studied dance in both West Africa and Cuba, based each section on traditional Afro-Cuban movement fused with modern dance. That, with O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban percussion score, creates an immersive cultural experience, weaving together religious stories with dance and music.
Ultimately, New Conversations is about empowerment. The work is centered on this theme, encouraging people to work together and celebrate the power of human connection.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
A Brown-O’Farrill creative work has been in the making for a while. The two met several years ago in Havana when they were both working with the Cuban dance company Malpaso. O’Farrill, who wrote the music for the ballet they were rehearsing, remembers how Brown approached him one day:
“He came up to me in a rehearsal and joked, ‘Well, you’re no good,’” laughed O’Farrill, “it was the highest compliment he could have given me.”
The sentiment was mutual. O’Farrill was drawn to Brown’s work for its sensitivity, iconic style, and storybased foundation. Brown’s work is journalistic, he says, which is what he, O’Farrill, was taught as a musician. Through this shared philosophy, and their passion for cultural expression, a creative friendship began.
AN INSPIRED PAIRING
In March 2017, the pair got the opportunity to meld their creative prowess. Taking time off from EVIDENCE and Jazz Alliance respectively, Brown and O’Farrill traveled to Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned dance center in Massachusetts, to develop a joint work. Their week together was time well spent; at the end of the residency, New Conversations was born.
Their creative process was experimentation and artistic joy incarnate. To start, Brown danced, toying with different postures and moves, while O’Farrill improvised at the piano. They flowed separately while responding to each other, interweaving their creative ideas and energies.
“That’s the first time I ever had the opportunity to do that with a choreographer,” O’Farrill said. “It was so natural and so beautiful.”
They emphasize that, during the process, each art form received equal attention and respect. While they were at a dance center, that did not mean the music was less important. It was an artistic symbiosis—a conversation in and of itself.
Their work is a perfect complement to Strathmore’s 2019–2020 season. This season’s theme is Inspired Pairings, featuring works that showcase a duo’s joint creative voice. “Inspired Pairings is an umbrella to help us shine a light on the way artists collaborate and pair their work,” says Joi Brown, Strathmore’s artistic director. “When audiences have an opportunity to hear two artists’ collective voice, the work becomes [much] more dimensional and broadens in its perspective.”
EMPOWERING THE SPIRIT—AND THE MIND
For Ronald K. Brown, New Conversations encompasses a spirit of positivity. He wants to inspire people to embrace life to its fullest. “I want them [to leave with their] spirits lifted all the way up,” he says.
“The audience should leave a performance feeling good about who they are,” he says. “I want people to see themselves [through the dancers on stage] and know that it’s a beautiful thing to be themselves.”
Attendees can also expect to have . . . well, new conversations. In the piece, Brown and O’Farrill connect ancient Afro-Cuban belief systems to modern society, encouraging people to think about culture and humanity in new ways. The piece’s goal is connection, rather than division, reminding people of the fluid similarities we all share as human beings.
“New Conversations is a stunning anchor for our Inspired Pairings season,” says Joi Brown. “Both Ronald K. Brown and Arturo O’Farrill operate in a social and cultural context, reminding us of our connection to history, tradition, community, and social justice. They fuel one another’s creativity—and the resulting work is vibrant and mesmerizing.”