Ronald K. Brown is not afraid to ask big questions and address large themes in his choreography. His 1999 sensation Grace depicted indi- viduals on a journey toward grace, or the temple of God. Thematically, Serving Nia picks up where Grace left off.
"I see the piece as an exercise in learning your purpose, talking about a sense of duty in your life," explains Brown. "And we can shift [from their previous journey] to the level of these people understanding their sense of responsibility and purpose in their life. Nia means 'purpose' in Swahili, but it's also a woman's name. So the idea is that there's this woman named Nia who trains servants."
It is important to examine such issues in his choreography, Brown believes, because today's society needs a wake-up call. "I feel in this race with technology and capitalism, we miss a lot of conversations about how we should treat each other, what is our real purpose here. So much is just about the individual… We're building this world where we can all be separate and we think that that's enough. And so I feel this spiritual conversation is something that doesn't happen enough, just in terms of how we should treat each other and what we're doing here. What's the reason for working so hard?
"That's part of why I come in with the idea that we're serving, to kind of balance things out. Everyone is a servant and royal, so [in my dance] I can have a servant and a king. But in the world, they say that I should be a king... And the sense of serving is not played up as much. So I feel that's the conversation that I can have with the dancers and then that's what we can offer from the stage - this idea that they're servants. Yes they're beautiful and they're going to be the same gigantic people, with this abundance of beauty, but the fact that they're focused on serving is the major point."
Brown's style is characterized by his unique fusion of ballet, modern, hip-hop and traditional African dance. In keeping with this tradition, Serving Nia will incorporate dances from Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. A variety of musical selections will underscore both the melding of genres and the themes of the ballet. "The first piece of music I'm going to use is by [jazz musician] Roy Brooks and the piece I'm working with is a piece called "The Free Slave," reveals Brown. "His description of the free slave is someone who serves no one but the creator." From there, the soundtrack moves into a piece by Branford Marsalis that borrows from West African music, a percussion piece from Guinea, and finally shifts into Dizzy Gillespie's 'Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac.' "So there's a sense of humor in it. It starts with this Yoruba Chant… and that's where the piece finishes and it's all about these angels coming to get these people. I don't normally work with this much jazz. But as with Grace, because it's the Ailey company and because of Mr. Ailey's legacy, I'm being pulled and challenged to work in places that I haven't before. In the end, I think it will be fulfilling." If his past successes are any indication, there is no doubt Brown's audiences will think so, too.