Marni LaRose caught up with director-choreographer Camille A. Brown recently in rehearsal with Catherine Foster at DANY Studios to discuss the inspiration behind her latest work, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, which premieres at The Joyce Theater in New York City on September 22.
Camille A. Brown was probably destined to be a choreographer. As a young girl, she was making dance sequences to The Gummy Bears television program and putting on shows at family gatherings. But her years of dance training with primarily male choreographers, did not introduce her to that possibility. It was not until she began her own personal investigation into the roots of African American dance that her need for self-expression, her love of theatre, and her desire for social advocacy converged and she began to find her personal voice in her own choreographic works.
BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play comes on the heels of Brown’s award-winning piece, Mr. TOL E. RAncE, which toured last year, a piece that examines the roles of black performers throughout history. Her new production, developed in conjunction with a multi-faceted community engagement initiative entitled Black Girl Spectrum, aims at exploring African American female identities.
MLR: As a choreographer, you have typically chosen storytelling over abstraction as your means of communication. Tell me about that choice and the role storytelling plays in your work.
CB: I love theatre. I’ve always been connected to musical theatre, theatre, television. Actually television and movies are probably one of my biggest inspirations. I just love the way there is an arc and there is something that I can follow, things that challenge me. I try to balance that with abstraction and storytelling.
Tell me about Black Girl Spectrum and its role in the development of your new work.
When I was doing this work, I knew I was talking about black girls/black women and I knew I was going to call it Black Girl — that title alone was very charged and very loaded — so it made sense for me to have a dialogue or to do something more than a dialogue for this piece. In thinking about how I can take arts and activism to the next level, I started thinking about the things I am interested in on tour and here, which is making more connections with organizations that focus on black girls, black women and on organizations of color nationally and internationally. So I came up with Black Girl Spectrum.
One of the reasons I came up with that title is because the media, for me, does not give a balanced portrayal of the black female like I feel it should. When I look at TV, most of the time, black girls are angry, we have attitude, or something has happened to us: we are devastated, there is trauma, there is rarely joy — I just don’t see that as much in the reality shows. What does that give off nationally and internationally? I’ve seen how people have perceived me before I walk in the door based on how the media is portraying black females and girls. So that’s why I call it Black Spectrum because it is about exploring the many facets of the black girl. We use social dances as the entry point for this dialogue.
Given events of the past several months, at yet another pivotal moment in our country’s racial history, how do you see the timing for this new work and its importance in that dialogue?
I think it’s good we are showing another side of black girls. We are showing the human condition, which is why people are saying “Black Lives Matter,” because we are human beings. We are showing the human experience versus trying to prove that, yeah, “Black Lives Matter.” We don’t have to prove it in this piece. We just are. We are talking about black girl joy and we’re talking about things that are authentic. We’re not talking about the problems and the issues because there are enough narratives for that. I realized that if I wanted to contribute something to this political climate, I want it to be another narrative that adds on. The thing that I didn’t see was actually the joy that we were talking about, so that’s what I wanted to contribute.
Amidst an environment and a history of African American struggles, your work seems infused with joy and hope. How do you balance the duality of pain and joy in your work?
I wanted to talk about the black girl’s experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no pain. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s all joy. It’s just experience. I wanted it to be an authentic story. Whatever is happening, we’re not trying to prove so hard that we’re joyful, we’re not trying to prove that we’re not angry. We’re just being and that’s what I tried to focus on, which meant, to a point, I had to distance myself from some of the weight of the issues. When I started the work it was very serious. What was happening was informing what was going on in the room. I felt like I had to change the course to give us the opportunity to be ourselves, to be angry when we want to be angry but to be happy when we want to be happy; to stand in our bodies and to be confident and take ownership of these things because of the stereotypes that we are fighting.
I feel like as a performer, this is probably the piece of mine, that when I’m on stage, I’m Camille and I’m not thinking about being anything but Camille. In other things, I’m thinking about a character, I make up a name, but in this one, my name is Camille. That’s the character’s name.
When you developed the work Mr. TOL E. RAncE, you said that “It’s a Black story. It’s a human story…I want people to see that you aren’t just outside looking in on a Black story.” How do you think audience members beyond your gender and racial identity encounter your work and how do you present the work to ensure those groups feel invested?
By telling it through the universal experience. If you talk about experiences that we all can connect to, there is no way you can say that you don’t know that story. You can say that you might not understand the language, but you know that gesture, you know that story. You know what it means to have a fight with someone, you know what it means to resolve it, you know what it means to feel rejected. These are things as human beings we have all been able to experience.
In this piece, I wanted to talk about the human condition but focusing in on black girls. There are three duets. These are stories of sisterhood and what does that mean? Yes, there’s a cultural sisterhood and there’s a certain way that we communicate and use gesture and use voice but we’re sisters. There’s a mother, there’s a daughter — these are things you can connect to on a human level and that’s what I wanted out of the dance.
We did a showing at The Clarice [at the University of Maryland]. My dramaturg, who was doing the Q&A, asked the audience to say one word that describes how they felt about the piece and a woman from New Zealand said her word was “included.” She said that clearly there were things in here that she didn’t understand but she felt she had been invited into the story.
Your choreography uses vocabulary from various forms of African American dance traditions including social dancing, double dutch, steppin’, tap, Juba, ring shout and gesture. How is that important to the message you want to convey?
Well for this work, specifically, it’s important for me to mix double dutch, mix Juba, mix all those things together because it is a cycle. It’s honoring the things that are innate in you, that are in your blood to do. It’s about making those connections and seeing those connections. It’s seeing that double dutch is rhythmic. It is musically complex. It was also a way of using the ground like in Juba. It’s the same thing, but it’s a progression. I feel that’s what social dances are. It started out very specific and then each generation took that and progressed what that is. Today someone can see that and say, oh yeah, that’s the jerk and then someone else can go, well, in the twenties that was the Charleston; now they have the new jerk. So you’re riffing off of things that have already been placed but we don’t see those connections partly because we are not educated to see those connections. That is one of the things that I see as an issue within the dance world. I was only taught, in my opinion, half of the story.
You use original musical compositions in your program. Tell me a bit about the development of the music and how it informs the dance?
I used to play the clarinet. I’ve always loved music. It has never been just dance for me. It has always been dance and theatre and music. I feel like music tells the story. It’s like we have our story and the music has its story. Sometimes they match up and sometimes they collide and what about the collision creates beauty and what about the collision creates awkwardness. I’m working with pianist Scott Patterson, who I worked with in TOL E. RAncE, and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth. It’s just investigating and trying things, seeing what works and doesn’t work.
Did the music or the choreography come first?
It happened in synchronization. There are also two renditions of rhymes in there from the thirties, Miss Susi Had A Steamboat, and Green Sally, incorporated into the musical compositions and also Radiohead’s Everything In It’s Right Place.
The clap Catherine and I were doing in the rehearsal, that’s an African beat. We do that at the end of the duet. That’s my way of showing the roundness of things. Everything is a part of each other. It’s the same need for the body to express itself. It’s contemporary but it’s also ancestral — and universal. I want people to see themselves on stage. This isn’t a dance performance. I don’t look at it as a dance performance.
You have chosen to work with a dramaturg on this piece. How common is it to work with a dramaturg in a dance piece?
I used a dramaturg in TOL E. RAncE. I have three on this piece: Daniel Banks, Kamilah Forbes and Talvin Wilks. I have three because all of them are amazing and all of them are so busy! I wanted to take my work to another level and challenge my love of theatre and my work of storytelling. This isn’t true of the whole dance world, ‘cause it’s not, but I feel like we are conditioned to be dancers. We are not conditioned to be choreographers. I didn’t know that was a choice. I wish a lot of things in terms of dance education but I wish that I was taught that dramaturgs are used in dance and by choreographers — that it’s not just about putting together a thirty-minute piece, it’s about crafting an experience. I didn’t really get into that until I started getting into my theatre projects. My theatre projects have really inspired and informed my work now which is really exciting. I am excited for people to see the evolution of my story telling. I believe with this piece that I have evolved and I have become better at it because I’ve had those theatre experiences.
BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play is at The Joyce Theater, New York City, September 22-27. Click here here for details.