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Humble and compassionate, American choreographer Camille A. Brown has captured the hearts of millions with her raw and brazen storytelling. From Broadway productions to social advocacy through thought provoking pieces and outreach programs, her commitment to honor the history behind these stories is unwavering. ICONS spoke with Camille about her newest piece ink and her inspiration throughout her career.
Dance ICONS: What influences your movement style? How do you work that into your creative process?
Camille A. Brown: I find it difficult to describe my movement style, because I just love to move and I love to dance. I lean more towards social dance, modern, African, hip hop and percussive genres of dance. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t think about these genres separately; it’s really more about how I like to move. I have a certain rhythm when I create, but my process is very spontaneous. These different movement styles are in my toolbox and I pull them out as I need them -- creating my own jambalaya! To me it’s not about being deep seeded in any specific genre, but to use them as a springboard to create my voice.
ICONS: How does your process change when you are choreographing for Broadway?
CAB: Most of the things I’ve learned as a choreographer have come from my experiences with musical theater. In general, I see myself as more of a director than a choreographer, because as I guide the performers through the arcs and transitions, the choreography emerges. The structure and the pattern might change, but whether I’m choreographing concert dance or musical theater, the goal is always the same -- to tell a story.
It’s about creating worlds, and I think it’s important to be respectful of whatever world I’m going into. It’s imperative for me to immerse myself in the culture of that particular world, because taking “this” dance and putting it “here” is not choreography, in my opinion. For example, the Broadway production Once On This Island takes place in Haiti, but is also inspired by other Caribbean islands. Once I knew the origins and the history of the social dance of these rich cultures, I could take it where I wanted to.
ICONS: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a Black female choreographer?
CAB: When I was younger I knew I might not get a fair shot unless people thought I was a man, so I considered taking an alias. There were definitely Black female choreographers at the time, but they weren’t getting the same exposure as male or White choreographers. I might have never considered taking an alias, or I might have gotten into choreography much earlier if I had been exposed to those Black women.
In hindsight, it was a dumb idea (laughs) because I know better now than to focus on any of that. Although there are patterns, it’s hard to pinpoint where the struggles are coming from -- because I’m a female, because I’m Black, because I’m both of those things, or maybe it has nothing to do with that at all. If I focused on the hardships, I might not be doing what I’m doing. It’s about shifting your thinking, taking what you might think is impossible and believing that it IS indeed possible.
ICONS: Can you talk about your outreach programs and how they relate to your work?
CAB: Our first initiative, The Gathering, came about from comments I heard consistently about how there aren’t many Black female choreographers, but I know better because I know a lot of them and I talk to them every day! So in 2014 we began an annual forum specifically for Black female choreographers to create a safe space where we can share a sense of validation and community while advocating for greater cultural equity in the field of dance and beyond.
BLACK GIRL SPECTRUM (BGS) was created alongside BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (BG:LP) not only to empower Black girls, but also to educate people about the importance of social dance and community. I had high hopes for BG:LP but was unsure of how successful it would be. I felt so strongly about this topic that I wanted to create an initiative to be sure that this message and this conversation would live beyond the work itself.
Thankfully they are both working together as one, and the response has been really positive. So positive, in fact, that it has been a catalyst for the growth and development of our community engagement platform, Every Body Move (EBM), which works to inspire and incite ambitious collective action fueled by the art of social dance for everybody!
ICONS: Tell us about your latest work as the last installation of the trilogy you’ve created. What is the relationship between the pieces?
CAB: The theme that connects the pieces is perception - how we see each other, how other people see us and how we see ourselves. Mr. TOL E. RAncE shows us outside perspective and Black stereotypes in the media; BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play gives us a Black girl’s story through her eyes; and the latest piece, ink, explores how Black communities see themselves and their own narratives.
Originally, I did not set out to do a trilogy. I just wanted to bring attention to Black stereotypes. It felt good to talk about wearing a mask and the idea of creating a double consciousness, and the response from audiences encouraged me to take the next step in creating a piece from my own perspective as a Black female. From there I felt like I needed to expand to include Black communities and how they interact with each other. At first I wasn’t sure if I was just stuck rehashing the same point, but soon realized that these viewpoints were all connected and that this conversation just wasn’t over yet.
ICONS: What sort of impact do you hope to have on your audiences?
CAB: I hope that people walk away from our performances with a new understanding, a different perspective of humanity in regards to the Black experience. If the work evokes a feeling, sparks a conversation, or shifts someone’s mindset then we have done our job.
ICONS: What advice would you give to the younger Camille of 15 years ago?
CAB: I would build her up as much as possible, and encourage her to ignore the comments from anyone who says she can’t do this. I would warn her that this is a very scary world and that things will get tough, but to trust that it will be okay and that she was built for this specific purpose. I would say do your research, keep digging, and eventually you will see a reflection of yourself in everything that you do.
More About Camille A. Brown:
A Queens, New York native, Camille A. Brown is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Audelco Award (2017), Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award (2016), Doris Duke Artist Award (2015), and the Bessie Award for Outstanding Production (2014) among many others. She is also a TED Fellow (2015) and has given several talks and performances for international audiences. Her TED-Ed talk A Visual History of Social Dance in 25 Moves was chosen as one of the most notable talks of 2016 by TED Curator, Chris Anderson, and has received 15 million views and counting on Facebook.
Camille A. Brown is the Artistic Director of Camille A. Brown & Dancers, a company that not only provokes discussion through their works, but also through their outreach programs that empower and inspire communities across the nation. Their newest piece, ink, premiered at The Kennedy Center in December, 2017.
Her choreography can also be seen in the current showing of the Broadway production Once On This Island as well as Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018.
Photography courtesy of Camille A. Brown & Dancers,
Images by Christopher Duggan, Whitney Browne, Eric Politzer and Marina Levitskaya
Interviewer: Christina Lindenmuth, ICONS Affiliate Dance Journalist
Editor: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc., All Rights Reserved © April 2018