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Broadway’s Camille A. Brown Brings the Drama to Modern Dance

January 24, 2019 by Nina Stoller-Lindsey
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Camille A. Brown (Photographed by Whitney Browne)

If you love musicals, you may have caught Camille A. Brown’s choreography in last year’s Tony Award-winning production of “Once On This Island” or on television in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” If you prefer Broadway plays, you might have seen her name in the playbill for “Choir Boy,” where her dance sequences helped bring the central choral music to life. Or you might have read that she’s choreographing the new Broadway-bound take on “Magic Mike,” which starts performances in Boston this fall. But long before she lent her inventive moves to theater, Camille A. Brown was a fixture of the modern dance scene. 

She was a 1997 Presidential Scholar in Dance, went on to perform with Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, A Dance Company, and then formed her own company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers in 2006 while also creating work for other prominent dance groups like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco!, and Complexions.

On Feb. 5, she’s gracing the stage of downtown Manhattan’s The Joyce Theater, an iconic dance-only venue inside a 1941 movie house that’s maintained its art-deco facade. Brown and company will give six performances of “ink,” an evening-length work that forms the final installment of her dance theater trilogy about black identity. (She’s a powerhouse performer, so it’s a huge bonus that she’s dancing in it too.) Ahead of opening night, we talked to her about how she found her way to “Choir Boy,” her favorite musicals, and why theatergoers should give modern dance a chance.

Get tickets to “Choir Boy” on Broadway. 

Get tickets to see Camille A. Brown & Dancers at The Joyce Theater.

How did you get into choreographing musicals and plays, specifically for Broadway? What attracted to you to that kind of work?
I’ve always had this special place in my heart for musical theater. My mom introduced me to her favorite musicals when I was really young, and we would watch the dance scenes over and over again. But I focused on modern dance — first as a performer and then as a choreographer. And then the bug of musical theater bit me again. So when I was having conversations about my dance company, I started mentioning that I was interested choreographing for theater. And then in 2011, I got an email from [the director] Daniel Aukin who was doing “Fortress of Solitude” with [music by] Michael Friedman and [a book by] Itamar Moses — and he actually hired me as the choreographer.  So from that point, I’ve basically had to learn in real-time because theater is a completely different world.

What’s one of the biggest differences between choreographing for theater and choreographing for a dance company?
The amount of choice making that you have to do in a very short time. If I’m working with my dance company and building my own show, I don’t have to make changes on a dime, unless they’re changes that I want. But, in theater, my job is to bring about the vision of the director. So if they want to try something new, I have to have another idea. And then I have to be ready with two more in case that one doesn’t work out.

What influences did you draw on in your choreography for “Choir Boy” and what role do you think dance plays in that production?
The root of my work is in social dance and the influences of hip-hop and African and tap and jazz. It’s an amalgamation of everything. I call it a Jambalaya. With “Choir Boy,” I really wanted to showcase these spirituals that [the playwright] Tarell Alvin McCraney infused beautifully into the piece. So I thought, how do we connect the ancestral energy of these songs that are over two hundred years old to the bodies of black men in 2018? One of the ideas that immediately came into my head was this idea of stepping from fraternities at historically black colleges. I also thought about South African gumboot dance because it’s about communicating through rhythm when you’re unable to use your voice. Movement was a way to support what was happening in the storyline of this young man feeling oppressed but also reaching out for brotherhood.

How much dancing training did your cast have?
They’re not dancers — but that’s the beautiful thing about it. It wasn’t about dance training in the sense of spins and turns but about living inside of their bodies. I had to ask: How do people, regardless of having training, or not, access the confidence to go onstage and move so freely. That’s what I work on when I’m in the studio with actors. And the guys threw themselves inside of the material and I’m just really thankful they were open enough to do this.

A lot of theatergoers may not be familiar with modern dance — or they might think they don’t like it. How would you describe it, as a genre, to someone who’s never seen it before?
That’s a hard question because it’s so specific to the choreographer, but one thing to keep in mind is that there are just different rules in modern dance. In theater, the audience needs to know who, what, when, why, how. If an audience leaves confused, then we didn’t get the story right. In modern dance, there’s abstraction. It’s okay if somebody leaves confused because there’s so much to play with. So people need to be open to being challenged. In theater, there are the songs and the scenes and dance usually isn’t as important, so it can be exciting to see an entire storyline driven by dance.

Camille A. Brown & Dancers (Photo by Marina Levitskaya – Peak Performances at Montclair State University)

In your upcoming performances at the Joyce, you’ll be showing “ink.” That piece is a great entry point for theatergoers because, like a play, it’s an evening-length work and it’s also highly theatrical. Can you give us a little bit of a preview?
“Ink” is the last of installment of a trilogy on black identities. It’s about how black people tell their own narratives in their own space when it’s not infiltrated with trauma or perceptions. It’s also about superheroes — but I don’t mean superheroes with capes! I was reading a book called “Question Bridge: Black Males in America” and one of the men interviewed said, “I see black people as superheroes because they keep rising.” For me, that was the “aha” moment. I choreographed “ink” with seven sections, each with an abstract portrayal of a different superpower that speaks to the African diaspora — like brotherhood or love.

What is the movement like? And the music?
It’s really my own choreographic voice using the influences of African and hip hop and jazz and tap and social dance. So you’ll see glimpses of the Hustle and the Chicago Quick Step.  The music is originally composed by a quartet of musicians and it’s very percussive. The drum is very important in African culture and in “ink” the drum is going through time travel, so there could be something that’s very African and then it goes to jazz and then to bee-bop. There are are also musical references to Mary J. Blige, go-go, and soul, and the initial concept for the piece was inspired by two albums, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate.”

Representation is very important to you in your work. Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a successful black female choreographer in a field that is still led primarily by white men?
I really feel it’s important to see reflections of ourselves, and it was very hard for me wanting to have a career in theater but not seeing many black women getting those opportunities. I dug deep to connect with the black women choreographers who came before me — like Marlies Yearby, who earned a Tony nomination for “Rent,” Emmy nominee Dianne McIntyre, and Katherine Dunham, who choreographed the original production of “Cabin in the Sky” alongside George Balanchine but wasn’t given credit until decades later. And when I have conversations with students they always ask about this. In the past week alone, two black girls in different sessions asked me what it feels like to be the only black girl in the room. So I hope I’m helping to open doors for young black women who want to be choreographers — or directors, or costume designers. So, yes, I do feel it’s a responsibility when I think about it being greater than me.

What do you want to do next  — with your dance company or on the Broadway stage?
My company is touring and I hope every city wants to see the entire trilogy that “ink” is part of. I’m excited to work on new theater projects coming down the pipeline and my hope is that all of this is building up to one day directing and choreographing my own show in theater.

Are there any existing musicals or plays you’d be dying to get your hands on?
I love “Sarafina!” [a South African musical about opposition to apartheid], which not many people know about, but I remember seeing it on Broadway when I was about eight years old. “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” I loved the movie with Debbie Reynolds. I loved her fight. And I adore “The Wiz.” There are so many opportunities to see black people moving and dancing and living and becoming these magical characters that have hope and meaning — and that’s something that we can feel good about.