BWW Interview: Choreographer Camille A. Brown of CHOIR BOY at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre
Dance helped Camille A Brown find her voice.
"My voice has always been small, and I used to get teased when I was younger. Movement and creating were the way for me to express myself without feeling judged," says Brown.
"My Mom loves musicals, and when I was younger, we would watch the dance scenes over and over again. I would watch Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos and try to learn the steps and be in the world of dance. It was so fun to have the ability to express myself in various ways and characters and not have to say a word."
The New York City native danced with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence for five seasons and has been a guest performer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Rennie Harris/Puremovement. In 2006, she founded her own company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, which invites audiences into stories and dialogues about race, culture, and identity.
Currently on tour with her new work "Ink" -- the final installation of the company's trilogy that follows the Bessie Award-winning "Mr. TOL E. RAncE" (2012) and Bessie-nominated "BLACK GIRL:Linguistic Play" (2015) -- we chatted with Brown via telephone about her process, and her work with Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy (closing March 10th),
Broadway World Dance: As a dancer and choreographer, what message are you trying to say?
Camille A. Brown: Well, it depends on what the story is. If it's a message of love, that's what we work towards in the space - a community. So the message changes depending on what we're trying to say. Every statement isn't the same. Each time you do a different piece, or you're on a different project, it involves another way of thinking and a shift in perspective. So I always try to show that evolution and shift inside of my work.
BWW: You've worked with quite a few musicals, including Once On This Islandand NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. With Choir Boy what was the concept for the choreography?
Brown: I was really excited to have the opportunity to use Negro spirituals and work with music director Jason Michael Webb in aligning the movement with the music. Negro spirituals have a rich, rooted history and I was familiar with most of them. However, it was important for me to do some research and re-familiarize and understand them. You are working with songs where the composers are black people, and it's exciting to have the authenticity of black people shown on a Broadway stage. So it was essential for me to bring about that authenticity and that aspect of the African-American tradition, which was rooted in community and spirituality and strength and persistence and resistance. So I tried to embody all of those things inside of the work with the guys.
BWW: The choreography borrows from the black fraternity stepping tradition.
Brown: Absolutely. For one of the spirituals, "Rockin' Jerusalem," we discussed how the cast felt when they sang the song? What really resonated with them? So I was thinking, 'Well, these are spirituals that are over 200 years old. However, we are also in 2019. So how do these young men tell these stories with the things that are connected and rooted and honest for them?" That's when I got the idea to incorporate the fraternity stepping, and also highlighting the South African gumboot dance. It was a mixture -- embodying and riffing off those two. It's all rooted in the African tradition. So it's terrific that these songs are coming from an African-American culture that is rooted in an African tradition. Then we push it forward to 2019 and how has that tradition evolved? The fraternity stepping was to show the evolution of African culture and how it continues to stay in us, and we claim it as our own. However, we also put our own individual creativity into it.
BWW: When you work with a theater production like Choir Boy, what are the challenges of working with actors as opposed to trained dancers?
Brown: I try to encourage people and make them feel empowered, especially actors who move but aren't necessarily considered dancers. Many times when people hear "choreography" or "dance," they freak out. So I try to talk to them about the different ways to use dance. Yes, there is that dance that has the kicks and turns and leaps. However, there is also the idea of dance that comes from the community, the things that we know that are already inherent in us. It's really about accessing that and being confident in what you have and what you can bring. It's just like being at a party, and the "Electric Slide" comes on -- everyone comes to the dance floor to do their own thing and be unapologetic about it. It's about making that connection for people and showing them it's still the same thing. How do we get to you walking out in the space, grooving and having your own individual creativity? How do we get that onto a space and have you feel good about what you're doing? That's what I focus on and make sure everyone feels good about their ability. What was exciting about the guys is that they could move and they could move well. I told them, "You know guys, I'm giving you an eight-count into a five-count back into an eight. You have to know that that is hard and something that dancers would have trouble doing." So the fact that they are up there and doing it with such confidence is so exciting to me. We also talked about being young black men in the world of theater and how early black entertainers both men and women had to wear blackface, had to step behind the mask. So here you are in 2019 on a stage -- nine black men, unapologetic, singing these spirituals that are authentic, moving and honoring African and African-American culture. Be proud. No apologies. They are really great people.
BWW:Why do you think dance is so important, particularly to African Americans, and do you believe dance has the power to heal?
Brown: Absolutely, I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't. Dance is so powerful because there was a time when we weren't allowed to speak or express ourselves through voice. If we did, there were severe consequences for that. And using a dance like the Cakewalk, which was to resist and push back and make fun of the people who were oppressing them. Moreover, their oppressors had no idea. Activism was happening through movement when we weren't able to do marches or give speeches. Looking back at it, that's one of the reasons they banished drums from many plantations because they knew the strength of it. They knew that it was a way for people to communicate that they couldn't understand. And when you don't understand something, you could be fearful of it. The slave owners banished some dancing, too. They knew its power, and we know its power. Even in the black church, the spirituality that comes with that. When we get the Holy Ghost, that's a movement, that's a response in the body. Also, in the Yoruba religion, specific dances are rooted and connected to the Orishas. So there hasn't really been a time when movement has not been a part of expression for black people.
BWW: What's next for you?
Brown: My company is touring, and you can go to my website (http://www.camilleabrown.org) to see our tour schedule. Then I will be doing [the musical version of] Magic Mike-- we're doing an out of town in Boston, and hopefully, the trajectory will be to Broadway. There are also a couple of other projects that haven't been announced yet, so I can't really say. But I do want to say this is an exhilarating time. When you have a dream, you don't always know if that dream is possible -- especially working in theater, [which is] very male-dominated and specifically very white male dominated. As a black woman going into this situation, it really feels good to want something and work hard and continue working hard. And throughout my journey, I always want to make sure that I'm honoring the black women who came before me, the black women standing next to me, and also the generation that is coming behind us.