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Camille A. Brown
Women in Dance

Camille A. Brown

A powerhouse dancer with expansive reach and bravura, Brown creates work that combines modern and postmodern dance, West African forms, and vernacular dances.


Written and Curated by Maura Keefe
Photo by Whitney Browne

Introduction

Camille A. Brown was first known in the dance world as a powerhouse dancer with expansive reach and bravura. She has been lauded as explosive and articulate. A force of nature. Those kinds of movement descriptions are also metaphors for a roadmap of her rich career. In addition to her dancing, Brown is an award-winning choreographer, an artistic director, a teacher, a community activist. Cover girl of Dance Teacher magazine, twice the poster image for Jacob’s Pillow, and brand Ambassador for Curls, a leader in the natural hair care industry. She was the first woman to receive the prestigious Princess Grace Award for Choreography. She is also the winner of a Guggenheim, and a Bessie, a Doris Duke Award, and other noteworthy awards too numerous to mention. 

Brown and Jacob's Pillow

Her relationship with the Pillow spans the gamut, appearing first as a dancer in 2002. Her company, Camille A. Brown and Dancers, first appeared at the Pillow in 2010, premiering works in the Doris Duke Theatre. She has returned several times since then. She and choreographer Kyle Abraham were commissioned by the Pillow to produce a joint show called Kyle and Camille. She co-directed a program in the School at Jacob’s Pillow. She has conducted Creative Development Residencies in the off-festival months. She and her company have performed on the Gala on two occasions. And she was the well-deserving recipient of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2016.  

For the 2013 Gala, Brown performed her solo The Evolution Of A Secured Feminine (2007). Set to a suite of standards, the exquisitely danced piece is evocative of a sense of women, different kinds of women, or perhaps the same woman at different stages of her life. With her face mostly concealed by a hat, Brown trusts that her body will communicate the sense of this woman, especially paired with the voices of Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald. Her crisp, punctuated movement is simultaneously fluid. She sets the bar high for the rest of the dancers. 

Camille A. Brown in The Evolution Of A Secured Feminine at the 2010 Gala
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Brown first performed at the Pillow as a dancer with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. In addition to performing with Ronald K. Brown, who is no relation, Brown has danced with Dianne McIntyre, Nathan Trice, Bridget L. Moore, Matthew Rushing, and Rennie Harris. In 2016, she appeared as a Special Guest in the world premiere of the show And Still You Must Swing with tappers Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant, and Jason Samuels Smith. 

And Still You Must Swing

How then did this dancer become a choreographer? In the summer of 1999, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiated a National Choreographic Competition. The annual competition provided three winners each with a one-week residency to create an original work on Hubbard Street II, the second companyAfter her work was selected, Brown started to think about herself differently.  

Choreographic Inspiration

As a dancer, Brown has been called a fabulous performer with technical bravura. As a choreographer, she could depend on that talent as a mover to guide her choreography. But, she has never been choreographically interested in movement for movement’s sake; rather, she wants to make dances that present “a story using every aspect of the arts.”  She draws on her interests in theater, books, film and music—from 1930s jazz to hip-hop—as well as history, current events, and close observations of daily life. 

 An example of her interest in history is Matchstick (2009), which was performed at the Pillow in 2010. Brown conceives of this work as set in the South, fifty years after the end of the Civil War and fifty years before the Civil Rights Movement. It was during this period of the Great Migration when more than a million African Americans left the South for opportunities in the North and the Midwest. The four men in the piece gesture, stand, stomp, and slump through this choreographic discussion on whether to leave home and seek a life of better prospect. 

 

Camille A. Brown and Dancers in Matchstick, 2010
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In 2011 and 2016, the company performed excerpts from Mr. TOL E. Rance, a dance theatre work that grapples with the history of stereotypes in black entertainment. The piece was awarded the 2014 Bessie award for Outstanding Production.  

Camille A. Brown and Dancers in Mr. TOL E. Rance, 2011 (Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima)

Brown’s choreographic research was inspired by multiple sources, including Mel Watkins’s book, On The Real Side: From Slavery to Chris Rock and Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled. This work made clear to audiences that Brown was not going to make dances that were easy, neither for the dancers nor spectators. Following every performance, as a kind of third act, Brown, the dancers, and a guest moderator participate in a conversation about the work, racial politics, stereotypes, both in the past and in the present. 

Choreography for Broadway

In 2016, Brown choreographed Cabin in the Sky (1940) for New York City Center’s Encores! series, which presents infrequently performed musicals. Choreographer George Balanchine directed the original production, and Katherine Dunham performed in it, receiving choreographic credit much later. When interviewed about the production, Brown acknowledged the rarity of the opportunity and her familiarity with the story from her perspective. “I’m a black female choreographing for a theater show. How often does that happen? What does it mean for me to step into that role and tell the story the way I know it?” Brian Seibert, “‘Cabin in the Sky’: Translating a Dated Body Language” The New York Times, February 4, 2016 

Theatre critic Jesse Green applauded Brown’s choreography for helping to lift the production from its “built-in limitations,” going on to say,  

“It was really only in her vivid and unusual dances, based on contemporary social forms but feeling at the same time oddly angled and modern, that the world of A Cabin in the Sky achieved a specific physical life. She tells her own story, not someone else’s—and, ultimately, that may be the best reason for Encores! to keep exploring the difficult tradition from which A Cabin in the Sky arose. Appropriated stories should eventually be taken back.” Jesse Green, “Theater Review: Encores! Tries to Renovate Cabin in the Sky.” Vulture February 11, 2016 

Social Dance

Brown talked about her use of social dance in the work, saying, “The thing to remember about social dance is that it was very specific to a time period but also very open to creative identity. There is a specific structure but it’s up to the individual to put what their take is.” Seibert, The New York Times 

Juel D. Lane and Camille A. Brown in Been There, Done That, 2010 (Photo: Christopher Duggan)
Camille A. Brown and Juel D. Lane in Been There, Done That, 2010. (Photo: Christopher Duggan)

Her expertise in social dance was seen in her leading the program for the School at Jacob’s Pillow called Social Dances: Jazz to Hip-Hop, with co-director Moncell Durden. Her duet, Been There, Done That (2010), which premiered at the Pillow, gives a sense of her expertise with social forms, theatricality, and how they can be used on the concert dance stage. 

Juel D. Lane and Camille A. Brown in Been There, Done That, 2010
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Collaboration with Kyle Abraham

A Pillow commission with Brown and choreographer Kyle Abraham received a joint commission from the Pillow that resulted in a rare opportunity for the talented dancers/choreographers to collaborate.  

Kyle Abraham and Camille A. Brown in How We Process, 2011 (Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima)

In How We Process (2011), Brown and Abraham reflected on the very different ways they approach dancemaking. 

Camille A. Brown and Kyle Abraham in How We Process, 2011
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In 2017, Brown returned with Black Girls: Linguistic Play (2015).

BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play
Post-Show Talk with Camille A. Brown and Dancers, moderated by Maura Keefe
View Archival Record

With stunning results, Brown combines modern and postmodern dance, West African forms, and vernacular dances, shifting styles not from piece to piece, rather from moment to moment. She takes on big questions, and trusts that dance is a way to provide answers. 

Maura Keefe is a contemporary dance historian. She is a scholar in residence at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where she writes about, lectures on, and interviews artists from around the world.Read Bio

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