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Ronald Ok. Brown Has a Mantra: ‘Absolute Victory Every Day’

On April 26, the choreographer and dancer Ronald K. Brown woke up and knew that something wasn’t right. “I couldn’t figure out how to move,” he said. “I was like, ‘You are a dancer. Why can’t you figure out how to get up?’”

But Arcell Cabuag, Brown’s life partner and the associate artistic director of his company, Evidence, had a good idea of what was wrong. A few years ago, his father had a stroke. “When I could tell that Ron wasn’t moving that side,” he said, referring to the left half of Brown’s body, “I had to call the ambulance.”

They rushed to the hospital, where Brown had a blood clot removed from his brain and was told to begin rehabilitation as soon as possible.

“My family said: ‘No phone, no emails, just let’s take care of this. Focus on getting better,’” Brown said, sitting with Cabuag in an office at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn, where the company is based and was rehearsing for a coming California tour and a season at the Joyce Theater, March 22-26.

Brown, 55, is a formidable choreographer whose spiritual blend of contemporary dance with African and Afro-Cuban forms has made him one of the most important dance artists of his generation — or, really, any generation. For a stroke to happen to anybody would be devastating. But for a choreographer of his stature, it’s horrible to contemplate. Brown’s dancing — his body — is at the root of his poetic, rapturous works.

Until now, he has stayed quiet about the stroke. Cabuag and his family encouraged him not to make an announcement on social media, telling him, “‘You don’t want people coming out of the woodwork, wanting to come to the hospital or wanting to bring you food,’” he said.

There was a reason for the privacy. Brown, magnanimous and soft-spoken, didn’t need any distractions from the only job that mattered: regaining mobility on the left side of his body. “Other people’s worry is not helpful for me,” he said. “I’ll be put in a position to try and take care of people, and I’m trying to take care of myself.”

But his condition hasn’t been altogether a secret. In October, The Washington Post reported that he had attended the company’s performances at the Kennedy Center in a wheelchair. “I know people want a breaking story, whatever,” Brown said, adding that “for the most part, I haven’t had to deal with this kind of energy.”

Brown has already made considerable progress, likely because of his profound understanding of anatomy and the body — his body. He is walking, although slowly, with a cane. His left arm is in a sling. With no muscle tone, “the arm is falling out of its girdle,” he said of his shoulder. “There’s nothing holding your bones in place.”

Lately it has improved. He is building more strength and “starting to move his arm now,” Cabuag said. “He’s actually getting more of a grip.”

To reach this point has been painstaking. But Brown, like most in the dance world, is resilient. After one therapist thought that he wouldn’t regain mobility in his arm, he moved onto another who started moving his shoulder blade and realized that Brown was the one moving it.

And he was lucky — he didn’t lose sensation in either leg or arm, and his speech, unless he is tired, is mainly clear, even through a mask. Of course, he’s had to change the way he rehearses and makes work.

“It’s a beautiful humility lesson,” he said. Instead of demonstrating movement to his dancers, “I tell them what to do, and they’ll do it,” he said. “My ego doesn’t have to get up to show them. There are other ways, just talking to them and trusting they can find it.”

That was evident at a recent rehearsal for the earthy, galvanizing last section of “Come Ye” at Restoration. “I want to see an alien come out of your body,” he told a dancer, who complied by adding more torque to his spine; he asked for “a little more grandma” from another, who immediately lowered more closely to the floor.

But the most encouraging part of the story is that Brown, whose health is generally good — he neither has high blood pressure nor a history of strokes in his family — is moving to the extent that he is. After the stroke, he spent five weeks under 24-hour care, first at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and then at Kings County Hospital Center, where he underwent acute rehabilitation.

When he arrived, he said, he really didn’t have any movement in his left leg or left arm. At first his occupational therapist focused on getting him accustomed to moving for daily living — including how to get in and out of bed.

For a week, they wanted him to be able to stand. “It was so painful to stand on my left leg,” Brown said. “I just couldn’t do it. But then on May 13th, I was able to stand up.”

It had to do with music. Brown was working with a therapist at Kings County, who wanted him to stand at a window and look out at the park. With a laugh, Brown recalled, “So I said, ‘Arcell, go get that music.’ ”

It was “Victory,” a gospel song by Maranda Curtis that Cabuag had played for him earlier. With the therapist on one side and her assistant on the other, they helped Brown stand and sit down. They took a break, and when the music reached its peak, Brown, without any support, stood up.

“We were all in tears, the therapists as well,” Cabuag said, and again, being a dancer helped. “They were like, ‘This would have taken a month to be able to do.’ ”

In that moment, Brown came up with his mantra: Absolute victory every day.

He quickly progressed to the next level: walking. He also started to read books about stroke recovery, which led him to learn more about nerves. He made an odd discovery: When he yawned, his leg would activate, the result of oxygen traveling to his brain. He could feel his leg, but when he yawned it was different. “All of a sudden, it was like a little baby,” he said, as his fingers danced on the top of his thigh to show how it would suddenly come to life.

A nutritionist recommended hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy, which has become a regular part of his recovery. On June 11, he was discharged from Kings County.

Brown’s recovery keeps him in continual a state of wonder; small steps are big victories — or absolute victories. He refuses to think about his prognosis. “I think I blocked all that out,” he said, “because I’m going to dance soon.”

Brown not only dances like no one else, he also makes dances like no one else by choreographing a sonic world — weaving musical tapestries — as well as a visual one. In his remarkable “Grace” (1999), created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the music — Afrobeat and house, along with Duke Ellington’s achingly beautiful “Come Sunday” — gives the dance its life and breadth, its gravity and lightness and, ultimately, its spiritual transcendence. “Grace” is a classic, every bit as important in the dance canon as the 1960 masterpiece, “Revelations,” which put Alvin Ailey on the map.

Brown has made numerous classics for his own company, too. There are no premieres in his Joyce season — the lineup includes “Ebony Magazine: To A Village,” “Come Ye” and “Upside Down” — but that isn’t the point. The more you see a dance by Brown, the more you get inside of it and penetrate it; his dances are exhilarating. (This summer, he will unveil “The Equality of Night and Day,” featuring music by the jazz composer Jason Moran, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.)

Brown still maintains a company, though that has become less common in the contemporary dance world; many choreographers like to work with dancers on a project-by-project basis. And balancing a company’s artistic and administrative sides is never easy.

The Joyce stepped in to help. In 2015, the theater began working with Sharon Luckman, a former executive director of the Ailey company, in conjunction with a grant to give companies performing there administrative help.

Linda Shelton, the Joyce’s executive director, said Luckman discovered Evidence had lost its tax-exempt status, which meant that it would lose financial support from both individual donors and foundations. “There’s so much paperwork that you have to do to keep that up, and they just weren’t doing it,” Shelton said.

All the same, Brown’s impact on the dance field was too important to let his company slip away. “He has a valuable role to play as a creative storyteller in this moment through a body of work and a legacy of promoting the Black experience through Evidence” Shelton said, adding that “his influence on a generation of dancers is an incredible story.”

The Joyce created a plan to explore a new idea: What if the theater managed the company? “I think it really freed Ron up,” Shelton said. “The whole idea was, ‘Ron, don’t worry about the audit or the 990s or anything. We’re good at that. You stay in the studio.’ ”

Initially, the relationship was to last three years, starting in 2018; it is continuing as the Joyce evaluates the plan to figure out what the next step is. “We want to do what’s right for him and the company,” Shelton said. “It may be to continue this. It may be that he tries to get his 501(c)(3) back. Is this the best thing for the company, for Ron? Is there something that might be better?”

In 2017, the company’s budget was just over $500,000; now, it is nearly twice that amount. The Joyce handles the administrative side of Evidence by acting as its fiscal sponsor; it also does fund-raising and even employs a company manager who coordinates rehearsals and touring, as well as an interim managing director.

And it has provided Brown with something that turned out to be indispensable and all-too rare in the dance world: health insurance.

The therapy that Brown has received — and still does — is critical to his recovery. Also meaningful have been people he’s met, including a nurse who showed him a video of her mother walking down the street a year and a half after having had a stroke.

“She said, ‘Don’t listen to what the doctors say about your prognosis and when you’re going to walk,’” Brown said. “‘Only God knows.’”

Brown also watches videos by Tara Tobias, a physical therapist whose work involves people who have had strokes. “She said that there’s all these theories about how to get people to walk,” he said. “Is it how many steps you take a day? How fast you walk? She said, ‘I just want you to practice how to walk properly. It’s not about how many steps. Just keep walking until you can walk.’”

She has helped him immensely, he said, along — of course — with Cabuag.

Brown, looking at Cabuag, remembered what he told him after the stroke. “It was so deep,” Brown said. “‘You taught me how to dance, and I’m going to teach you how to walk.’”

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