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.
The set for last year's ceremony. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Tony Awards
The biggest weekend in Broadway is finally upon us: The Tony Awards are this Sunday (airing at 8 pm EST on CBS). While other media outlets might be busy forecasting winners, we're speculating about the dancing we might get to see during the broadcast.
As one of the most celebrated concert dance choreographers working today, a Broadway musical felt like a natural next step for Camille A. Brown. She'd already dabbled in choreography for musical theater and plays. Plus, she tells rich, vivid stories in her concert work about the struggles and triumphs of being a black woman in America today. So when we found out she would be choreographing the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, we were understandably excited. And she didn't disappoint.
Dancers in rehearsal for Once On This Island; PC Joan Marcus. Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown
"Should I watch it to get a sense of what happened, or should I go with my own vision and understanding of the culture?" That's what choreographer Camille A. Brown was wondering in June, when she started work on the Broadway revival of the Antilles-themed musical Once on This Island.
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."
Once on This Island, choreographed by Camille A. Brown. PC Joan Marcus
Camille A. Brown is part of an elite coterie: black women who have choreographed for the Broadway stage. Once on This Islandwon't be the first time she's listed as choreographer—she provided the moves for the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, following in the footsteps of Dianne McIntyre and Hope Clarke, who've also added dancing to Broadway straight plays.
But she's still making history of a kind: Full-scale commercial Broadway musicals choreographed by female African Americans are rarities. Clarke did Caroline, or Change in 2004 and Jelly's Last Jam in 1992, and in 1988, Debbie Allen took on Carrie.