Jason Brown, Rohene Ward seek to spread the light with “Sinnerman” program

ISU World Figure Skating Championships - Stockholm: Day Two
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When choreographer Rohene Ward contemplates a new program for Jason Brown, he asks himself: How are we trying to touch people? How are we going to leave them feeling when they walk away?

Last spring, with frustrations in the Black community growing and COVID-19 tightening its grip, Ward thought it was time to honor Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and choreographer of “Revelations,” a landmark work telling elements of the Black American experience through modern dance.

“All of this is part of my blood memory,” Ailey said of his signature work, first staged in New York City in 1960 and now one of the most performed ballets in the world. “We’re really celebrating human beings, trying to make an identification with the Black past through dance.”

As a work devoted to the Black experience, “Revelations” encouraged people of color that there could be a place for them in the dance world. In 1968, it formed part of the Opening Ceremony for the Mexico City Olympics.

“The first time that I saw ‘Revelations,’ it was shocking to me; it meant, ‘Dance can do this, dance can be this, in a uniquely American tradition,’” said Kate Penner, a dancer who teaches at Boston Ballet School and is part of the Vail Dance Festival team.

“The stories that you portray in classical ballet represent almost no one — a lot of fairy tales, peasants, royalty and class things — from [the] Grimm brothers,” she added. “My dad is Black, my mom is white, and ‘Revelations’ resonated with me [because of] the stories family members tell about where we’ve come from, what our values are.”

Ward sought to create a program for Brown rooted in the Ailey vocabulary: athletic presentation, combined with long extensions and fluid, yet controlled, upper body movements.

As the painful spring of 2020 stretched on, with the death of George Floyd and the eruption of protests in U.S. cities, his choice was affirmed.

“I knew this was a special piece of music, it was a special time, and I knew Jason was special,” Ward said, adding that although the skater is not Black, “He has been close to people in the African-American community for so long, he has a different perspective than some people would have. He has the ability to make people stop and watch him and feel something. It doesn’t matter the race, the sex or the age, or anything.”

“Sinnerman” appears in the third and final section of “Revelations” – “Move, Members, Move” – and is danced by a male trio. Ward chose Nina Simone’s jazz-infused version of the spiritual, with its propulsive beat, for Brown’s short program.

“There is definitely an excitement about the piece. I can’t wait to play that program off of people, feel that energy,” Brown said after his performance of the routine at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm last month, where spectators were not permitted.

“A lot of people have said they can’t wait to be there,” he added. “I’d like to be able to perform [“Sinnerman”] in front of an audience, when it is safe to do so.”

Brown will get the chance at the 2021 ISU World Team Trophy, to be held April 15-18 in Osaka, Japan, which is planned to have a limited number of spectators. The event features six top ISU members – Japan, U.S., Russia, Canada, Italy and France (substituting for China, who declined the invitation) – competing in a team format, with points awarded based on skaters’ placements within their discipline. Each country brings two men, two women, a pairs’ team and a dance team to the event. His fellow skaters elected Brown team captain.

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“Growing up with Rohene and his influence since I was a young kid, he has introduced me to so many different genres and styles of music and dance,” Brown said. “He introduced me to Alvin Ailey and always pushed me to watch different styles of dance from a variety of cultures. It’s always amazing to learn from him.”

“We really wanted to bring [“Sinnerman”] to life in a different way, on the ice,” he added. “I’m really, really thrilled how it is coming along.”

Ward’s relationship with Brown dates back to the 2008 Upper Great Lakes Regionals, where he competed in the senior men’s event and Brown, then 12, contended in the juvenile category.

“Judges came up to me and said, ‘You have to watch this little boy, he reminds us of you, he has a ponytail,’” Ward said. “So I did, and I thought, ‘Wow, he does remind me of me.’”

Soon after, Brown’s former longtime coach, Kori Ade, asked Ward to stand in for her at one of the youngster’s exhibition performances. This initial contact was inauspicious — Brown forgot to bring his music and left the ice in tears — but in 2009, Ward moved to Chicago at Ade’s invitation, to coach and choreograph. He has created programs for Brown ever since, including “Riverdance,” which went viral in 2014, and an acclaimed short program to “The Room Where It Happens” from the musical “Hamilton,” among others.

“I have been talking to [Jason] about Alvin Ailey for years and years and years, but we never did a program,” Ward said.

“Sinnerman” almost didn’t happen. Ward and Brown created another short program in the spring of 2020, set to a gentle piano piece, “Melancholy,” that Brown used to win the Peggy Fleming Trophy in Colorado last summer.

The skater, who trains in Toronto, didn’t even show “Sinnerman” to coaches Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser until Ward insisted he do so. They were bowled over.

“I think once Brian and Tracy got to see it in person, it gave him that little boost of confidence that, yes, this is the short program,” Ward said. “And as soon as he got that he ran with it.”

Ward’s determination to create a program based on Ailey movements sprang in part from a longtime friendship with Derrick Minter, the company’s late performance director. Minter, and other Ailey members, thought Brown could capture much of the modern dance technique invented by Alvin Ailey’s mentor Lester Horton: lunges, leaps and turns, combined with lyrical movements.

“Jason incorporates so much of the physicality with a commitment to its original intent, appropriately adapted for the demands of a short program,” Penner said.

“It really stands out to me that his body line is trained to navigate these new shapes,” she added. “This looks like a different program than what he has done in the past, which is impressive because given the demands of the sport, it’s totally understandable to see people recycle movement vocabulary from one season to the next. Jason does not do that.”

Brown announced he will keep “Sinnerman” as his short program next season, with hopes to compete it at the Beijing Games next February. Following the 2021 World Championships, where he placed seventh, the skater returned to Chicago to polish the program before the World Team Trophy.

“It still has a ways to go, and I’m definitely going to watch more Alvin Ailey pieces and continue to learn as much as I can from them,” Brown said, adding, “It’s all about the symbols, the shape, the lines. Alvin Ailey is such a modern, contemporary take on dance, unlike anything I’ve seen before with other styles. It’s really about this abstract movement on a piece of modern music.”

Less abstract is Brown’s pursuit of quadruple jumps. In Stockholm, he landed a quad salchow in his free skate, but it was judged slightly short of four rotations by the technical panel. Still, it brought him steps closer to his goal of having quads in both of his programs come Beijing.

“Every single day we train both (quad salchow and toe loop), all the time,” Brown said. “The programs are choreographed so they are interchangeable. I’m striving hard to get both quads in, as soon as possible.”

Ward applauds Brown’s pursuit of quadruple jumps and the extra points they bring – so long as the skater’s choreography and performance quality doesn’t suffer.

“I’m just happy Jason hasn’t gotten frustrated and stopped believing in himself,” he said. “The fact they gave him some marks that are under rotated or whatever, I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s not about how they feel about it; it’s about how you feel about what you did.’ He needs to be proud he did it while keeping up the integrity of the rest of the program.”

Alongside his choreographic career, Ward coaches at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Illinois, about 35 miles outside of Chicago. There, he works with the rink’s skating director, two-time U.S. pairs’ champion Rockne Brubaker, and Brubaker’s wife, Stefania Berton, a European pairs’ medalist. Two of Brubaker’s pairs won junior medals at the 2021 U.S. championships.

“Amber Gil and I are building a singles program and also working on technique with the pairs,” Ward said. “We teach in groups, more in the European style, so it’s more affordable for the kids.”

Ward hopes to attract more students of color.

“I’ve reached out, but with COVID it’s been difficult,” he said. “It’s about going into the community and doing the work. I’m ready to do that, once COVID clears.”

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