Choreographer Ronald K. Brown remembers buttonholing Booz Allen Hamilton executive and dance fan Reginald Van Lee over dinner in 1999 for a donation to his struggling dance company, and getting a blunt thumbs-down.
Yet two months later, Van Lee spotted the troupe’s name, Evidence, A Dance Company, on the marquee of Manhattan’s Joyce Theater and bought a ticket. Its slavery-themed piece with haunting music “completely blew me away,” Van Lee said, and he waited outside the stage door for Brown.
“He was surprised to see me because our dinner certainly didn’t suggest that I was going to be a patron,” Van Lee, now 52, said in a phone interview. “He said he needed someone to chair the board, and I said I’ll chair it.”
As Evidence celebrates its 25th anniversary, Van Lee has emerged as a pivotal figure in the company’s history and survival. He helped bring in about 2,500 active donors and board members from finance, law, fashion and media.
Brown launched the dance troupe with $800 borrowed from his mother and relatives, and at the time he and Van Lee had dinner, the company’s headquarters was his Brooklyn apartment.
Its budget has grown to $1.5 million last year from $95,000 in 2000. While many emerging dance companies struggle to find corporate donors in the recession, Evidence’s sponsors for its seventh annual “On Our Toes” summer benefit on Saturday in Water Mill, New York, included HSBC Premier, financial-services giant Prudential, ING Direct USA, and Continental Airlines.
Van Lee said Evidence’s fans and corporate supporters have connected with Brown’s unique style of conveying the black experience through modern dance. In a review of Evidence’s “Walking Out” tour in 2003, the Washington Post said Brown’s company had “zoomed to the forefront of modern dance” because of its “exquisitely sculpted” movement.
This year, the economic decline forced Evidence to cut its budget to $1.3 million and fired two dancers, Brown said. A $70,000 gift eased the shortfall in donations.
Van Lee, who stepped down as board chairman this year, said the trustees he recruited are pushing hard for more donors and fresh sponsors. They include new board chairman Joyce Mullins Jackson; Reggie Canal, an HSBC senior vice president; Zaid Abdul-Aleem, a senior vice president at the Durham, North Carolina-based Piedmont Investment Advisors LLC; fashion designer b. Michael and consultant and former Pfizer Inc. vice president Leslie Mays.
A native of Houston, Van Lee started dancing when he was 4 and took ballet lessons while earning degrees in civil engineering at MIT; he also has an MBA from Harvard Business School. He flirted with the idea of becoming a dancer until he found out they earned as little as $8,000 a year.
“I decided I would be more valuable as a patron than as a dancer,” said Van Lee, who went on to become board chairman of both the Dance Theater of Harlem and the New York International Ballet Competition.
Van Lee said he’s looking forward to Brown’s “On Earth Together,” a new dance based on the music of Stevie Wonder, which has its debut at the Joyce Feb. 8.
“It’s quite unique how Ron tells a story because he really does a fusion of dance and music,” Van Lee said. “You don’t see the typical bodies of dancers. You see dancers with larger bodies than you normally see. You see men who are a lot thinner. You see people who are more like yourself onstage.”