It was a real-life tragedy that helped open Ronald K. Brown’s eyes, gave him the understanding he was searching for — and the opening scene to his latest piece of work.
“On Earth Together,” coming to the Ordway on Sunday, celebrates the love and compassion of those working to make the world a better place — both on this planet and beyond.
Brown said he began conceptualizing this piece during a difficult time in his life, a time that brought great perspective.
“I lost a really good friend to cancer, Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson from Howard University, and she gave me actually the opening of the piece, as I pondered on how much I missed her,” he said.
In the process to move on and understand those that have left us and the fact that they are always looking over us, Brown said his dear friend came to him during a meditation.
“She said, ‘I’m with you, beside you,’ and it was an incredible way of understanding the support of your ancestors,” he said. “It’s not that they’re just above us, that’s true too, but they’re all around us.”
With that soul-stirring inspiration and a little help from one of the kings of compassion — Stevie Wonder — the show began to grow its legs. Using the songs of Mr. Wonder, Brown began to move. His dance company, Evidence, followed and soon he was crafting a moving, breathing piece of art.
In a somewhat unconventional way, Brown begins “On Earth Together” with the upbeat, happy and soulful song “All I Do” before getting into the emotional, more inspiring ballad, “You and I.”
Brown said that’s intentional.
“(I was asked) why are we doing the happy section first, usually it seems the fun, happy section is last,” he said. “And I said, ‘No, we need to open up the space for love and we understand that they have opened up this space of love for us and then we can go on to do the work that is ours to do.'”
Brown said a mentor once compared his work to a collage — referring to the way he uses different artists and several moving styles. But for this piece, he was challenged to use just one artist. Eventually, he landed on the one, and only, Stevie Wonder.
Brown had done a solo piece to a few Wonder songs in the past but never a group piece. But, when he focused in on the songs and the message he was hoping to send, it all made sense.
“This man has made his whole career on talking about how we should be compassionate,” he said.
Songs like “Blame It On The Sun,” “Jesus, Children Of America” and “Evil” are folded into the show to further the message and expand the reach. The piece took Brown three years to complete but he said it’s been an incredible journey from learning how to create it.
The last time Brown was at the Ordway was in 2008. He said since then, his company, the work and the dancing has only gotten better.
“I think the work, the dance for me is like a major stew,” he said. “It becomes more seasoned, more flavorful over time, deeper in a way.”
Brown said he’s looking forward to returning to St. Paul and hopes to leave a lasting impression.
“Evidence celebrates the human condition and I think we all need that nourishment at this time,” he said.
Ronald K. Brown Evidence, A Dance Company, will perform “On Earth Together,” at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $26 and are available at the Ordway website.