My Career Was Taking Off, But My Life Was In Danger: Camille A. Brown Shares Her Untold Story
It was one of the most exciting times of my career. I was in the midst of creating the last installment of my trilogy on identity—ink—which would be my company's Kennedy Center debut, and just booked my first Broadway musical, Once On This Island. ink would premiere on December 2, and OOTI would open on December 3.
Personally, I was going through a bit of mourning. I had just turned 37 and was really doubting my abilities as a dancer. The work wasn't getting easier, and I felt like I would have to make a decision soon about whether to retire.
It was a lot to navigate—the highs of success, and the lows of inevitable change. Little did I know, nothing would compare to the life-threatening health issues I was about to battle in the midst of it all.
We sometimes live dual lives—the life people see from the outside, and the quiet battles that only our family and friends know about.
The outside eye saw the success of Once On This Island, Jesus Christ Superstar Live, ink and my cover on Dance Magazine. But over the course of 2017 and 2018, my appendix ruptured twice, I was in the hospital at least four times, and had two surgeries. For over a year, my attire consisted of baggy clothes to hide my stomach, PICC line, and bandages.
It began February of 2017. While running auditions for the upcoming, BELLA: An American Tall Tale, I started feeling queasy. It seemed to subside and I headed to North Carolina that night for CABD's tour. I was told there was a bug going around, so I assumed any new symptoms were connected to what was spreading.
During our warmup, I felt (what I thought was) muscular pain, and decided to take it easy during the show. We traveled to Mississippi for performances the next day.
After checking into the hotel, that pain seemed to have focused itself on one area. Since it was where my appendix was, I called my production stage manager, Robert McIntyre, and friend Juel D. Lane, and told them I needed to go to the emergency room.
After tests, long hours, and a lot of morphine, the doctor said my test results showed an appendix rupture and it looked like the fluid had been in my system for more than seven days. He then said this is usually fatal after just five days. There was no time to react, only to listen. In order to remove the fluid from my body, they would have to insert a drainage bag that would be attached for one month.
While I was in the hospital for two days, my team, dancers and musicians worked to revise our show so they could still perform. They are magical!
Back home, I met with surgeon James Satterfield, who explained that because my appendix had already ruptured (and I survived), he wanted it to heal on its own. I was not able to dance or do anything physical, but I could still attend any meetings I had set up.
Once On This Island was about to be in full swing, and as I met with director Michael Arden and the team, the whole time I was thinking how crazy it was sitting there with a drainage bag, not knowing where I was health-wise. If the doctors said many don't survive a ruptured appendix, what did that mean for my future?
A month later, the bag was removed, and the company was about to head to Jacob's Pillow for a residency. I was really excited to dig into our new work, ink.
A couple days before leaving, I developed a fever and my mom immediately took me to the ER. The fluid had not all drained out of my system from the rupture. I would have to do IV infusion three times a day for two to three weeks. Sticking to my designated hours was vital to survival.
By this point, my stress levels had reached a new tier. The premiere of ink was fast approaching and I didn't have many chances to put the work together. I connected with my concert dance agent, Pamela Green, and we decided the dancers would still travel to Jacob's Pillow. I sent them assignments each day from my hospital bed. The dancers sent videos at the end of their days and I provided feedback.
Once again, this amazing group of people rose to the occasion.
Oddly, I still thought I'd be able to meet them at The Pillow once I got out. Who was I kidding? I told myself to have several seats.
My IV regimen coincided with rehearsals for BELLA, so director Robert O'Hara graciously worked around my schedule. I was able to sit during rehearsals while my associate, Rickey Tripp, translated the movements I was doing from my chair.
My full recovery took about six weeks. Afterwards, I started training again for CABD's shows.
On August 30, our third day of rehearsal for Once On This Island, the cast was learning music, and the creative team met upstairs. Suddenly, I felt the need to sit down.
My appendix had ruptured again. I called my theater agent, Michael Moore, in tears. This was my first musical on Broadway. Why is my body doing this now? I was in pain and afraid. I couldn't get out of bed even if I tried. I was new to the theater scene, so it would have been very easy for another choreographer to be hired.
When the doctors told me I would be in the hospital for at least a week, I called director Michael Arden, and prepared for him to say it wasn't going to work out. To my surprise, he was extremely supportive and he, Rickey, and assistant choreographer Catherine Foster checked in daily.
Catherine Foster in ink
I was able to return in time for the last couple days of the lab, and drafted three numbers. We had a two-week break before official rehearsals began. During this time, my company had a performance at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I couldn't perform, but used our rehearsal time to work on both ink and reconstruct the OOTI numbers. I felt like I had lost so much time, and worked to make up for it.
Before we started OOTI again, I visited the surgeon, and found out that my twice-ruptured appendix had to come out within the next six to eight weeks.
By this time, I had cried so much from frustration and fear that I had no more tears—I just had to face facts.
We came up with a plan for me to have the surgery the first day of tech. Rickey and Cat would represent the choreography department while I was away, and I would make my changes during previews.
The recovery time from my surgery was horrible. I couldn't walk and had to sleep sitting up for two days. All I had was time, so while at home healing, I worked on a strategy to make adjustments in OOTI. There was no room for error or investigation.
Joan Marcus, Courtesy Once On This Island
ink premiered December 2 and OOTI opened December 3.
It had been a month since surgery. Since the solo I performed in ink was done sitting in a chair, I was still able to dance—or at least do an abbreviated version. My performance had to come down to intention. That's all that mattered and all I could really do. I also had to wear a sweater for the Dance Magazine cover shoot in January to hide my bandages and I couldn't jump for any of the pictures. I was so frustrated. Now was the time to give my all. The cover of Dance Magazine?! My body had other plans.
In February, I was in rehearsals for Jesus Christ Superstar Live, and noticed that there was a huge knot in my stomach that looked like a tennis ball. It turns out that one of my incisions opened and I had to have surgery again.
Over the summer, CABD was on break, but I was working on several theater projects. It had been over a year since my initial crisis and I was tired of feeling crazy. I hadn't engaged my core in so long because I couldn't. Now, out of the woods, I wanted to be in top shape for CABD's Dallas engagement in August.
I contacted Rodrick Covington, one of the actors in OOTI. He was a trainer for Core Rhythm Fitness. As the weeks went by, I felt my body changing. I was getting stronger. His training program not only helped me physically, but mentally, too.
It was a whirlwind of so many emotions I'm still processing to this day.
The health experience taught me lessons about aging and leadership.
Before I got sick, I was harping on what I was possibly losing as a dancer because of my age. It's interesting how quickly you redefine youth and aging when put in debilitating circumstances. At 39, I'm celebrating my wisdom and intention.
People often ask me what I look for in a dancer. The answer is: A leader. Each person held CABD down and protected me. Led by CABD's incomparable managing director Indira Goodwine, they were my leaders, bodyguards and my unshakable community. They had my back.
Courage and leadership is a ping pong. You're constantly riffing off of, guiding and learning through it all.
Every day, I went home fearing a possible visit to the ER. It's crazy how you can be facing death when you're trying to breathe life into a thing. Somehow, through all of that, my family, friends, theater choreo teams and company made me smile, laugh and push through the unknown. The best bodyguards really do protect you.
After my first surgery, I was having a hard time walking and was giving up. I just wanted to lie down. My mom and choreographer, Marlies Yearby, told me, "You have to tell your body what you want it to do."
I've learned to approach my career just like that. I have to tell the universe what I want. I almost lost my life last year, and now it's time to live.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
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.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.