Camille A. Brown Talks Collaborating With Alicia Keys on Hell’s Kitchen

November 17, 2023

If there are two artists you can be sure are proud New Yorkers, they’re choreographer Camille A. Brown and singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. Brown is often quick to mention how her Queens upbringing has shaped her work, which spans Broadway and opera stages plus her own contemporary company, and which often incorporates the social dances she learned growing up. And Keys? Her multiplatinum collaboration with Jay-Z (“concrete jungle where dreams are made of” ring a bell?) speaks for itself.

It only feels right that the two powerhouses’ first collaboration is a love letter to New York City. Hell’s Kitchen, a coming-of-age story loosely based on Keys’ own adolescence, with music and lyrics by Keys (featuring­ both original songs and existing favorites)­ and choreography by Brown, opens off-Broadway at The Public Theater this month. 

What kind of relationship did you have with the music of Alicia Keys prior to coming onto Hell’s Kitchen

I love Alicia Keys’ music. I mean, I’m originally from Queens. So the fact that she has a song dedicated to New York City and her being from New York—I immediately had a connection to her music and to the person she is. 

What’s it been like collaborating with her?

It’s really exciting and thrilling and also scary to create something to someone’s music and actually have that person sit in the room and watch. You want them to dig what you’re creating, of course, so the nerves are there. But she’s so down-to-earth and so encouraging.

What has your process of creating the movement been like? What influences are you pulling from?

I’m pulling from my own experience being from New York. There’s not much research that I have to do in terms of knowing New York, so it’s more about getting inside the music. That’s really been the goal: What does “Empire State of Mind” feel like, as a movement, as a dance? The exciting thing about the show is that it’s both music that we know and new music. There’s one number that I can’t wait until it’s released because it’s out of sight. I had so much fun choreographing it. 

There’s always the one song in a show that I’m like, What am I gonna do with this? It was the kind of thing that, as a choreographer, you can go several ways: You can lean into hip hop, you can lean into contemporary. I decided to lean into everything. It’s fun because I get to show my contemporary-modern dance side and I also show what I do with social dances. 

What’s it been like to choreograph to such iconic songs that you’ve known for so long? Is it hard to approach them with fresh eyes?

When you ask me that question, I immediately think of revivals. What does it mean to take a show and to give it a new take and reimagine it? I feel like it’s the same with her music. It’s so well-known, and she’s been on the map for decades now. And I know that there have been so many people that have created to her music. So what take am I going to have? And how is this music supporting the story? Because what’s beautiful about the layering of the music is that it’s positioned to support the story. So how can I lean into what the story is asking of me? And what are the ways that I can reimagine it for myself? I didn’t necessarily think of “Empire State of Mind” as a dance piece. But here I am creating a dance piece for it. 

What in the show are you most looking forward to audiences getting to experience?

The new songs. I listen to them to and from rehearsal, because they’re that good. It’s gonna be exciting to have people react to the songs they know—the way they come in is really smart—and the new songs.