Q&A with Camille A. Brown, founder and artistic director of Camille A. Brown & Dancers

Dance becomes a tool for social justice in the hands of celebrated choreographer Camille A. Brown, who talks about her creative process. 

Whitney Brown/Camille A. Brown & Dancers
Camille A. Brown founded her dance company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, in 2006.

Camille A. Brown’s work has graced Broadway shows such as “Once on This Island,” the recent Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and the Metropolitan Opera production of “Porgy and Bess.” She’s also a TED fellow, and created the 2016 TED presentation “A Visual History of Social Dance in 25 Moves,” which demonstrates how popular dance steps (“social dance”) like the Charleston originated in African American communities. Her choreography expands on those traditions while being grounded in modern dance. She creates work that fosters a deeper understanding of Black history, culture, and identity. Her online Social Dance for Social Justice School creates opportunities for, and mentors, young artists of color. She recently spoke with the Monitor about her creative process.

Q: How do you start visualizing movement for a musical?
It depends on the show and what is required – what is the story. I ask a lot of questions. The job is to create the vision of the director using your choreographic voice. Now that I’m getting into directing, I’m starting to ask my own questions: “How do I want to make people feel?” “What is the takeaway?”

Q: What is the role of a choreographer in productions such as Broadway musicals?
Dance shapes the character and [ties] the strings all together in the movement and visual aspects. ... But there’s not just one system. Everyone has their own way of working and navigating, and you’re working with different directors who each have their own process, so each time is a different experience.

Q: Is that different from your process of choreographing dance for your company? Your evening-length concert dances are usually preceded by extensive research.
I research musical theater, too. That’s a misconception, like it’s all happy dance. Some of the most weighted research I’ve done is around musical theater – dealing with stereotypes, mass incarceration. ... “Choir Boy” was about navigating space as a young Black gay man. In “Once on This Island” one of the focuses was on class. I’m going to dig in somewhere before every dance, but you dig into yourself, too. How can you connect on a personal level?

It’s your vision [and] decision-making. It’s how you lead, how you collaborate with dancers and musicians, or whoever you’ve brought together to make work, and that can be very daunting. ... It starts with who’s in the room and what’s the energy they are bringing into the space. It’s a community that you’re building. It’s very exciting because it is yours and you can play, but it’s scary, too.

Q: How do you generate ideas?
Sometimes it’s music first, sometimes something on TV is very inspiring, sometimes I’m walking and see a visual. It depends. You have to allow for difference; otherwise you’re just repeating yourself. After each show, I write what I’ve learned from doing that show. I’ve learned something from all of them. I want to experience transformation with every project. I want to be changed after every experience.

Q: How do you see your company’s role in promoting social justice?
I am trying to tell all kinds of stories the way I see them. I’m walking in my Blackness, and I’ve been walking in my Blackness, so there may be people that are shocked by what’s happening, but this has been an issue for centuries. This is nothing new. I got a lot of pushback when I started creating “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012) because it’s about Black stereotypes, and people [were] like, “Why are you doing this now? We’re in a post-racial society. We don’t need to talk about race anymore.” And look at where we are now. You have to speak your truth when you feel the need to say it.

Q: You define “social dance” as dance that emerges from a community. What role does it play in creating community?
It has several roles, which is the beauty. It’s a time for celebration, for healing, to be together, to be social, to interact, and feel each other in space, to share our creative identity. I’ve always had a small voice and been reluctant to speak, especially in public. Movement is my way to express myself in the safest place for me. I almost dropped out of that TED Talk, but I try to push through the fear of things. With my process, I don’t map out from A to Z. Sometimes I just have to push through the fear of not knowing and see it as a place to discover.

Q: What else would you most want people to know about you and your work?
I’m still in a male-dominated field. That hasn’t changed. I have to work 20 times harder. Think about how you have to hold the space as a woman and being Black, and put that together. That’s a lot to carry.

Q: What do you see for yourself in the next five years?
I hope I grow. I want to be ready for infinite possibilities and constantly put myself in situations where I’m challenged and it’s not comfortable ... having the courage to be seen. It takes bravery to get out and share your voice, to do what artists do every day. There are times I think, “Oh my goodness, I can’t do that!” And sometimes it comes to other people encouraging me to keep going. You don’t do things alone.

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