Community, ritual and shared experience

Finding ‘Higher Ground’

Performances at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center by Ronald K. Brown’s New York-based Evidence contemporary dance ensemble on Jan. 22-24 will include opportunities for community engagement and connections to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to promote understanding and unity.

Community members “from ages 8 to 80” are invited to audition for a chance to perform with the ensemble in “On Earth Together,” which uses the music of Stevie Wonder. Walk-in auditions start at 6 p.m. Jan. 14. No dance training or experience is required.

After the Jan. 23 performance, Community, ritual and shared experience dancers from Indiana University South Bend, led by Kelly Morgan, and community drummers led by longtime teacher and performer James Riley will offer an additional celebration called “Higher Ground.”

The events are the culmination of a focus on community relations that started in November with performances of “In the Heat of the Night” by the L.A. Theatre Works, says Leigh Hayden, the performing arts center’s director of external relations.

“We used that as a launching point to get people to start thinking about how we can come together as a community and give people the chance to express what their thoughts are on how we can achieve what we call Higher Ground,” she says. “How do people from different racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds come together and work for a solution?”

The project includes multimedia displays and sticky notes on a whiteboard where theatergoers jot their own thoughts, hopes and dreams, Hayden says. A version of the board will be in a booth at the community King Day Celebration at South Bend’s Century Center.

The initiative has gained heightened relevance in the face of recent nationwide racial tensions over the killing of African-Americans by white police officers, she says, referring to King’s “something is happening” line in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

“This is also a time when something is happening in our community, something is happening in our society,” Hayden says. “How can we use the art that’s presented here to open dialogue, to have people think of the content, when it is thoughtful content and relevant, not just entertainment, and bring people into conversations who normally wouldn’t participate? Art is relevant. Art does have power. That’s one of the things we’re trying to get across. Art has power. It has power to move things forward.”

Anna Thompson, executive director of the performing arts center, says Brown’s uplifting, often spiritual approach invites audiences to enjoy while prodding them to think without shame.

“You have to pull them in and keep them there,” she says. “Ron has a loving way of doing that. “If we can open the dialogue, people can have the conversation. The arts allow us to look at things differently, more objectively than when we experience it personally. We have to find the common ground. We are all on this planet together.”

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This story was originally published in NDWorks.