Don't Dare Underestimate Camille A. Brown
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
It is a testament to her strength: In a situation that could have been fatal, she literally never missed a beat. She is the unsinkable Camille A. Brown.
Like the old graffitied subway cars that rumbled through her hometown of Queens in the 1980s, Brown's work is tagged with cultural identifiers. Her strong technical modern dance foundation merges with African, topped with the social and theatrical dance that were staples in her home. (Her father teaches salsa; her mother loves musicals.) Hip hop, tap and step round out her distinctive choreographic portmanteau.
Growing up, Brown wanted to choreograph since before she even knew the word for it. "I always put things together, made up dances to cartoons," she says. She began training in neighborhood schools (Queens' Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center and DeVore Dance Center), then became a scholarship student at The Ailey School while also going to the famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
She was a standout: Her senior year she won a YoungArts' Presidential Scholar in the Arts award, the Young Artist Award and the Helen Tamiris Award, all for performance. But it was in composition classes at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts that she learned the language for the dancemaking she had been doing.
Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Almost as soon as she came on the scene, she started turning out work that was recognized at the highest levels—four Princess Grace Awards, a Bessie Award, a Doris Duke Award, a TED Fellowship, residencies at places like Jacob's Pillow.
In the early years, her It-girl status generated a great deal of jealous "hateration." From the outside it looked like grants and commissions were being handed to her. Few knew the depth to which Brown descends into personal, artistic and cultural wellsprings to mine her choreographic gems.
Maybe she is underestimated because of her diminu-tive stature and distinctive, high-pitched voice. But she is a woman who knows her mind. There is nothing happenstance in her career or her creations. Audience members often assume the work is improvised, due to its spontaneous feel; she takes umbrage at that thought—every moment is carefully crafted.
"People have no idea how hard she works. She has always been willing to try, and unafraid to fail," says longtime dancer Juel D. Lane. Urban Bush Women artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who commissioned her work early on, agrees: "She has a voice, a point of view. It's distinctive. You can see her dance history, all the techniques, in her vernacular, and it's compelling and original."
As a black person, watching her work feels highly personal, like you're sharing a secret, or reading a love letter. She escorts the beauty of our dance culture into a space where it has often been excluded—that of high art. In the vein of a Dunham or Ailey, she cuts us slices of life.
Brown and her company members in Mr. TOL E. RAncE. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Brown.
Mr. TOL E. RAncE takes us behind the mask of minstrelsy to reveal the weight of double consciousness. In BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play she makes us recognize black girls as children, exposing their humanity and the genius in their play. Her newest work, ink—the last in the trilogy—reclaims ritualistic African-American gestural vocabulary, and highlights positive male relationships and black love.
Along the lines of television producer Shonda Rhimes and film director Ava DuVernay, Brown is a part of a cultural movement of black female artists who are redefining how African-American stories are told: with humanity, sensitivity, depth and intellectual sophistication.
Each of her evening-length works comes out of a one- to two-year process that includes extensive research and the composition of an original score. To foster a deeper under-standing of black history and culture, Brown offers reference guides in the programs and post-performance dialogues. Seeing, hearing and interacting with the artists make her dancers not just objets d'art; they have voices that she encourages them to share.
Yet the audience is not afforded an emotional release. For instance, in Mr. TOL E. RAncE, her use of disturbing images of minstrelsy set to the awards show "Who You Be, N****...That's Me!" makes viewers shift in their seats. In naming a show BLACK GIRL she was highly aware that she might well be shooting the production in the foot.
"I mean, it was a risk," she says. "People might not have wanted to book it, or see it because of a preconceived notion about what a production called 'Black Girl' was going to look like."
Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser in Black Girl. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Brown
In recent years, Brown has been steadily laying track for a dual career in theater. Her first major theater commission came in 2011 when director Daniel Aukin tapped her to interpret the music of the '70s for The Fortress of Solitude. "I didn't know what I was looking for, but after I'd seen a bunch of Camille's choreography, I knew I'd found it," he says. "Her work is fierce, deeply personal, socially engaged and witty."
Brown quickly learned that musical theater is a different animal than concert dance. "In theater you have to be able to give the director options on the spot," she says. "It's not about your first idea, it's about your eighth. Concepts are constantly changing and you have to ride with the tide."
She also has to factor in more than the dancing. "Early on I helped her navigate jurisdiction of the director/choreographer roles in theater," says Broadway veteran Rickey Tripp, who's worked as her associate choreographer. "I'll also remind her, 'Okay, remember they have to sing after doing this.' " Theatrical lessons like always serving the story have only deepened her concert work.
Today, in addition to directing and performing in her own company, plus choreographing for Broadway, she also has developed two programs of civic engagement: The Gathering, a convening of women of color in dance; and Black Girl Spectrum, an initiative that works to establish "safe spaces for black girls to live as creative citizens."
Brown is very aware of what she represents to younger black women. "Most of the time we don't see ourselves in the front of the room, in power. I want to normalize that," she says. "I feel that when you get that door open, it is your responsibility to keep it open for others."
Brown in ink. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Brown
Her team—CABD's managing director Indira Goodwine, manager Lakey Wolff, concert agent Pamela Green and theater agent Michael Moore—works like air traffic control around her, performing a constant dance of scheduling. "There is no way I could do any of this without them," Brown says.
As she's hit her stride, she has decided to pull back on commissions. "Look, I don't have a million ideas for pieces, but I do have a million ideas that can fit into one work!" she confesses. Right now, the place she wants to put most of those ideas is into her own company and theater work.
She speaks frankly about being black and female in the world, the struggle to be seen and acknowledged, embodying the old adage about having to be twice as good to get half as much. However, she represents the by-product of that imbalanced reality in her endurance, ingenuity and creativity.
A thought that anchors her latest CABD work, ink, is a quote from the transmedia art project Question Bridge: Black Males in America: "I see black people as superheroes because we keep rising." This encapsulates Camille A. Brown: She keeps rising, unsinkable.
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.