Camille A. Brown grew up self-conscious of her voice.
Rattled by the timbre of her own sound, worried that it distracted others from the content of what she said, Brown spoke aloud less and less—but she always had something to say. “Movement was always a very safe space for me,” she says. “It was the vehicle that helped me express how I was feeling.”
Bursting onto the theatre scene with the Tony-winning revival of Broadway’s Once On This Island in December 2017, the choreographer proved her power. True, her speaking voice hovers at a high pitch, but what she’s saying through dance lands with a declarative stomp.
Through form-busting projects like Afro-Hatian-influenced Once On This Island, rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, Broadway’s current Choir Boy, and her upcoming ink at The Joyce in New York City (beginning February 5), the movement is distinctly Camille A. Brown.
Hard-hitting and guttural, Brown’s dance often blasts from the abdominal core, as does the emotion embedded in physical contractions and releases. “The idea of making everything expressive and expansive—when you open up your core to open up your heart, you’re also exposing who you are in your soul,” Brown explains. “It’s important for us to be OK with that type of vulnerability.”
In fact, vulnerability is a prerequisite for her dancers and actors.
Storytelling With Style
Intensity and authenticity, too, have always been the essence of Brown’s choreography, be it for the concert dance stage or for theatre. “When we’re performing and moving, we’re telling the audience how they should feel and what they should look at—how they should respond,” she says. Every step is an “informed choice” and Brown is obsessed with intention in her storytelling. (She’s one of a few choreographers who employs a dramaturg for her concert dance work.)
“It’s like writing an essay,” she continues. “You have to make sure everything you’re saying is clear. It’s the same with working in theatre. You’re working separately with the section, but in your mind you always have to be aware: Am I repeating something? Did we need to see a motif of some kind in the beginning so that when it comes back that helps people make connections to the story and what’s going on?”
In connecting to story, Brown weaves technique with social dance, expressions like the Running Man or the Twist that emerge from a community with steps everyone can agree on but are not choreographed by a single person and can't be traced to any one moment. She infused the Hatian Yanvalou dance into the vocabulary for Once On This Island. New Orleans’ second-lining emerged in Superstar (“It has very similar themes honoring celebrations, spirituality, upliftment, God,” she says.); 1920s Charlestons and the like emerged in King Herrod’s song, but ’90s hip hop matches the energy in “What’s the Buzz?”. Flavors of the South African gumboot dance and stepping infuse the nine teens of Choir Boy with the masculinity to which their characters aspire.
Open Heart Policy
In that vein, Brown relies on her individual dancers and actors to contribute to the narrative. “It’s not, ‘I’m the choreographer and I’m telling you what to do,’” she urges. “It’s just like an actor has a line and they’re able to say it 50 different ways, I want my dancer to have one step and say it 50 different ways.”
And music—the sound, history, even the volume—impacts Brown’s choreography. “When we were in the rehearsal studio” for Jesus Christ Superstar, Brandon Victor Dixon sang “full out every time so I was able to understand, ‘He goes off hitting those notes, there needs to be a jump phrase here so we can match that.’
“Listening to music, it’s a storyteller. It has its own character and, in a sense, is telling you which way to go—at least it tells me.” And with her diverse training, Brown can answer to the multitude of styles and sounds.
Claiming Her Place
“Especially black choreographers, it’s easy for them to get pigeon-holed. Like they only do ‘black shows,’ but I can do Mary Poppins,” she declares. “Just like I’m familiar with every genre of dance, I’m familiar with every kind of musical. I used to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers so I know exactly what that is.
“It’s just so strange how women, black women, black people, are placed in certain things,” she says. “It’s about breaking through that and getting people to see that we’re dimensional. Women are dimensional.”
Through her full repertoire, Brown keeps cognizant her mission of reclaiming the African-American narrative and experience. A paragon of versatility, she embodies the reclamation of African-American culture and its impact.
“What I try to do is take the tools and then stir them up,” she says, “and figure out what stew tastes right for Camille.”