The Dance Enthusiast Chats with Choreographer/Dancer/Director Camille A. Brown about "BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play"

The Dance Enthusiast Chats with Choreographer/Dancer/Director Camille A. Brown about "BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play"
Christine Jowers/Follow @cmmjowers on Instagram

By Christine Jowers/Follow @cmmjowers on Instagram
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Published on September 19, 2015
Photo by Ryan Lash/TED

"BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play" Kicks Off the 2015 Fall Season at The Joyce Theater

BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play runs at The Joyce from September 22- September 26th for tickets click here for  The Joyce Theater*

*Bessie Award and Doris Duke Artist Award-winning choreographer Camille A. Brown and the women of Camille A. Brown & Dancers present the world premiere of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Original compositions by collaborators Tracy Wormworth and Scott Patterson are performed live and encompass the rhythmic play of African-American rooted steppin’, Double Dutch, and Juba. Each performance culminates with a second-act dialogue, allowing audiences to engage with the artists on stage.  To find out who the guests moderators will be click this link from Camille A. Brown & Dancers.

Christine Jowers for The Dance Enthusiast: What sparked the creation of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, Camille?

Camille A. Brown: During Mr. TOL E. RAncE, after our audience talkbacks, people came up to me, mostly black women, and asked, “Are you going to create a piece specifically about black women focusing on our issues?”  I felt a huge responsibility, which I felt good about but was also scared of. I wanted to talk about myself as a black female, but I wanted to do it from a place of full understanding, not obligation.

I started thinking about problems, about issues facing black women and I became exhausted. I live with these everyday. I live between the tropes of the “angry black female ” and the “strong black female.” Did I really want to spend another process (as in the 2012 piece Mr. TOL E. RAncE ) focusing on stereotypes and embodying those? Did I want to, almost unconsciously, create the same piece I did before because it’s within the same world?

 Tracy Wormworth and Camille A. Brown- Photo by John Werner, Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

TDE: Instead of dealing with stereotypes, what did you focus on?

CAB: I asked myself, what are the things that you don’t see? And I don’t see black girls in their childhood being portrayed in the media.

I googled “black girls playing” and the results had NOTHING to do with childhood. Almost everything was sexual. That was sad, but it gave me the inspiration to create the piece I did.

Within this political climate, if I am going to contribute something, I want it to be in addition to— something that can help move the conversation forward. We know the problems, we know the issues, but what we forget, and what we are not shown, are things that are beautiful, things that are dimensional.

Sometimes, our “black girl” gestures, you know, that “snap” [she snaps her fingers in front of her face in an arc] and the “hand on the hip,” are compartmentalized and portrayed as meaning one thing, namely, “I have attitude.”  But I know this snap can have at least five different meanings. How can you honor what is culturally specific, go against the tide of a stereotype, elevate and claim our gestures as art— empowering and not diminishing?

TDE: I remember when I interviewed you about TOL E. RAncE, you wondered whether or not people would want to have a conversation about race, and if they were going to “get it.”. Were you similarly concerned here?

CAB: I had those same questions, but for this piece, I cared less about it. Now that we are talking specifically about a black girl, the work is pointed at me, and with art you have to stay true to yourself. Sometimes that means people not getting it.

On the flip side, I am interested in showing universality. How can I create something that is culturally specific, that maybe not everyone in the room will get — which is fine, the people that are receiving it need to receive it— but how can I include  people who aren’t black girls in the conversation? One way is talking about the power of sisterhood. There’s a culturally specific way that sisterhood happens, and there is the universality of sisterhood and the universal relationships of women: mothers, daughters, friends.

TDE: Do you see your life in this work?

CAB: It is my life. It’s the play, the play in it. That’s one of the reasons I called this piece, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, to remind people that there’s play in black girl stories. We don’t necessarily see a lot of that. What we are shown is aggressive, hard, “we don’t know how to resolve things,” “we fight each other,” “we call each other names.”  But I know another side of that, the loving and caring, the spectrum of the black girl. That ’s what I wanted to talk about.  

This is not about proving anything. I am not trying to teach anyone about the black girl, I am the black girl. I am the girl and I am the woman, and the child, and I am riffing off what those memories are through my gaze versus a male choreographer’s gaze.

Camille A. Brown & Dancers: Photo by John Werner, Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

TDE: How does it feel to be Camille on stage instead of a character you are portraying?

CAB: What does it really mean for Camille to stand on stage and be Camille? Well, I am not playing a role. It is me standing there. It’s a great feeling, a scary feeling, a very empowering feeling. It’s hard. As choreographers we are vulnerable anyway, but when you’re standing there as you are, you are proclaiming that your are enough in front of people, critics, who have opinions and judge if you are good enough or not. This piece isn’t about me waiting to see if I am enough. I already know I am enough.

TDE: I had the privilege of watching rehearsal today and when I spoke to Yusha (Yusha-Marie Sorzano) about her gorgeous gestural work she said that she felt she was really able to be herself in this part of the dance and it was a gift. Did you know that you were giving this gift to your dancers?

CAB: It’s theirs and I am really proud that they feel that way. I wanted that. I love moving [she starts circling her torso though sitting in a chair—moving big] but there is lots of gesture in this piece. I told the women that I can’t create thousands of gestures on my own. There are six of us on stage, why not open the door for people to tell their stories?  In that position I am a director, as well as a choreographer.  

TDE: Your dancers are very committed to your work.

CAB: One of the things that I love about my company is that they want it just as bad as I do, and they understand the reason why this is so important. I am not alone.

TDE:You may be dancing a solo ….

CAB: But you’re not alone. And we learn each other’s gestures, so it’s almost like we can we carry each other’s stories in our own bodies.

Camille A. Brown & Dancers: Photo by John Werner, Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

TDE: Community dialogue was an important part of TOL E. RAncE with talkbacks always being part of the theatrical experience as they will be now. Can you tell me about what role community has played in your work this time around…maybe a little bit about your Black Girl Spectrum workshops*?

*(In 2014 Brown and Company launched Black Girl Spectrum, a multi-faceted community engagement initiative that uses dance as a means to address civic, educational, and economic struggle through cultural and creative empowerment.)

CAB: I wanted to do something more with this piece. Here is another chance to have a dialogue, but what else? With TOL E. RAncE we were creating and showing. Here I asked, can we learn from the community and what can we be informed by during the process?

TDE: So there was an interest from the onset in giving something back, beyond a performance?

CAB: I wanted to empower girls and women through movement and I wanted to create an educational component, understanding the history of African-American social dance. Sometimes non-dancers think of dance as something they can’t do.“Oh the legs, oh the feet, oh the height, I can’t do all of that.”  But, thats only one aspect of dance. I believe there is a side of dance where you can see yourself, you can see your mom, see your uncle, or see the electric slide. That’s part of the dance world too.

It was important for me to reach back into the community and to show that dance is accessible, and there are many entry points. You don’t have to be an observer, you are moving everyday.Being connected with young girls and women through Black Girl Spectrum helped me get into the realm of childhood for this piece.

Dancing Black Girls: Camille A. Brown, Jacqueline Green, Michaela DePrince, and Misty Copeland

TDE: Camille you are a 2015 TED Fellow; you won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Production for Mr. TOL E. RAncE; you were a Lucille Lortel Award Nominee for your choreography in Fortress of Solitutude at the Public. You’ve received grants from the Doris Duke Foundation and the New England Foundation of the Arts. This is wonderful, but is it ever a burden or a pressure to be so recognized?

CAB: One day, I went into my house where I had the awards up in the hall, and I took them all down. Then I stared at the wall which was blank — it still is blank with the exception of one picture— and asked myself, are you going to be OK if you never get another award, if that’s it? Are you going to give up if people don’t acknowledge you?

There has to be a root, and the root is not other people. I try not to put that pressure on myself. This has to come from within.

I’m extremely thankful when I am given awards and acknowledged. It’s a tremendous feeling for myself, my dancers, my creative team, and everyone that has believed in me and sacrificed. It’s a thank you to them. But, I have to remember that’s not way I do it. I work because I love the freedom to create what I want to create, and that should always be there.

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