The body doesn’t lie, and Camille A. Brown needed to know the truth about what hers was saying.
“The sound is nice, it’s very nice,” Shaune Johnson-Faust told her with soft-spoken approval.
Brown had asked Johnson-Faust, an early teacher, to look at a tap duet from her celebrated “Black Girl: Linguistic Play.” Johnson-Faust watched it with her eyes closed, to better grasp the rhythms the feet were tapping out, albeit in sneakers. Her words had an immediate effect. Brown’s shoulders softened. Her eyebrows relaxed. Tension melted throughout her alert form.
Johnson-Faust, who was an important influence on Brown, taught using drums. “The drums would play a rhythm and then we would have to mimic the rhythm,” Brown said in an interview earlier. “So I feel like a lot of my influence is based on how I was trained in tap: feeling the rhythm and just playing with all of that. We were young. I was, like, 11. I didn’t realize what she was giving us.”
Looking to her mentors and her teachers while examining the history of social dance is an important part of Brown’s process, which requires a sensitivity to the past along with theatrical and choreographic ingenuity. But this season, Brown, 42, is faced with a more personal challenge. She is restaging her acclaimed trilogy of dance works — “Mr. TOL E. RAncE,” “Black Girl” and “ink” — and will perform with her company, probably for the last time.
As the rehearsal was winding down, Brown told Johnson-Faust, “I want to make sure that whatever it is looks strong and purposeful and intentional.”
Those words pretty much sum up Brown, the dynamic, much sought-after Tony Award-nominated choreographer and director whose inventive work has brought her as much success on Broadway and in opera — her touch has given staid stages a new spirit — as in the world of concert dance.
Brown was the director and choreographer for the critically acclaimed Broadway staging of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which closed earlier than expected. In February, she will begin working on her second production at the Metropolitan Opera House: choreographing Terence Blanchard’s “Champion.” (As the choreographer and co-director of Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” at the Met in 2021, she gave the production a much-needed jolt.)
In her trilogy, Brown addresses issues of race and identity while exploring facets of the Black experience that have been appropriated, neglected or lost. “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012), which looks at minstrelsy, and “Black Girl” (2015), a joyful celebration of games, dances and chants, will be presented at the Joyce Theater Oct. 25-30. And “ink” (2017), about resilience in the Black community, will be performed at the Apollo Theater on Nov. 4 and 5.
Kamilah Forbes, the executive director of the Apollo, called Brown “a canon-defining artist of our generation.” Forbes, who also served as a dramaturg on two of the works in the trilogy — and is directing the musical “Soul Train” with Brown as choreographer — loves that “ink” will be at the Apollo.
She sees it as a piece celebrating and investigating “pedestrian, gestural, Black movements, and how we, as Black people, communicate with each other, with our bodies and how that language transpires,” she said. “That is most well suited at the Apollo: You step out on 125th Street, and that is our culture and our physical communication of our culture on display.”
Brown — who was born and raised in Queens, where she still lives — began dancing around 4. As an introvert, dance was the space where she could be confident, where she could express how she felt — about anything. She went on to study at LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts and received a B.F.A. from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts before joining Ronald K. Brown’s company, Evidence, in 2001.
But during her training, dancing brought struggles, she said, specifically with body image. “I have teachers like Shaune that always helped me,” she said. “But there were also those teachers — you can tell when you’re not the favorite. You can tell when the teacher is not feeling you. And that made me feel horrible.”
Now when she teaches — which isn’t often — Brown tries to make everyone in the room feel visible. And that is also true of her work as a director. “How do you make them believe that the space is theirs,” she said. “That they own it, and they are enough?”
Over the past few years, Brown has shown how profoundly she owns her own space. Recently, she spoke about her trilogy, her trepidation about performing and how transformative stepping out on her own has been. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.
Are you really not going to dance with your company after this?
Our last company show was March 2020. I was 40 at the time, and I was already feeling like, OK, my body is changing. I’m not sure that I can sustain this. I would spend six weeks as the choreographer, and then the next week we’re on a plane with my company and I’ve got to get on a stage and dance.
Now I am starting to get directing opportunities, and I know that it is going to require me to be more behind the scenes, which means that as much as I love dancing, I have to be very smart about the preparation and when and how. So I don’t want to say I’m stopping dancing. But it does require a shift of thought.
How did the works in the trilogy change or crystallize your choreographic path?
“TOL E. RAncE” was my first political, possibly controversial, work. It was my first evening length. It was my first real stab at creating a theatrical experience — like theater and acting and character work. It really felt like the start of this is who Camille is, this is who Camille wants to be.
Meaning that you established your point of view?
Yeah. We all have influences. And there’s one point where you have to go, OK. What is my influence? What is my voice? You have to decide which way you want to go: Do you want your influences to support or do you want them to lead? And I did not want my influences to lead. I wanted my voice to lead with the support of my influences, which I think is very different.
How did you approach “Black Girl”?
I wanted to create these mini movies that have an arc, but you’re just zoning in on this one story and you’re watching it go from A to Z. “Black Girl” is about showing our full selves and the dimensions of that. And “TOL E. RAncE” is more about seeing the perception of who we are, and it is also about celebrating those artists that did come before us. But then when we start getting into the minstrel, it’s not about who you are, it’s about what has been put on to you. I’m always nervous to do “TOL E. RAncE.”
Because it’s meant to entertain, but also to make people very uncomfortable, to make them think about where we are now. When we first did it, Obama was finishing his first term and people were talking about, Oh this is a post-racial society. Now we’ve gone through the insurrection. George Floyd.
What about “ink”?
“Ink” goes back to being yourself, but taking it to that next level of what if we can fly? It’s how we see ourselves in the future. I started thinking, what is the superpower of Black people? And it’s resiliency, it’s perseverance.
Do you want to continue with your dance company?
I do. I just need to figure out how to do that on top of everything else. It’s hard.
The company can be almost an incubator for your ideas.
Oh yeah. I worked with my company on “For Colored Girls” on ideas, because I just wanted to be ready. By the time we got to our official rehearsal, I had a draft from beginning to end of what I wanted to do movement wise.
You have been working on so many high-profile works — from the opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” to “For Colored Girls.” How did you deal with that pressure?
The stakes felt so high. It was like, OK, no matter what — show people who you are. And be brave enough to do that. A mentor said, “Make sure everything on that stage is what you want and what you saw for this piece.” And that was a lesson. That’s me on the stage.
How disappointing was it when “For Colored Girls” closed?
Oh, I was in shock. I remember doing the closing night speech. And it was so surreal. Like, I couldn’t believe I was standing onstage saying goodbye. We created something. For it to suddenly just shut down? I mean, I understand we’re in that kind of climate, but you’re never ready for it. But I was proud of what we did, and that was an opportunity for people to see another side of me, and I have to hold that.
How do you see the future of dance in your life? Are you going to move more into theater?
I definitely want to do more directing and directing/choreographing. I want to do film and television more. Debbie Allen is one of my role models. I love how expansive her career has become. I mean, she’s directing “Grey’s Anatomy.” I want my career to continue to expand in that way.
What is it like performing for you now?
It’s scary. I got into Evidence when I was 21. You have people that are seeing you for the first time at 42. So my friends and mentors just try to reinforce to me that like, don’t try to be you 10 years ago. Do who you are now.
Are you making changes?
I am planning to make adjustments to the things that I am doing. I just think that’s a smart thing to do. Dance and movement and the ability to show that through my body means so much to me. I just hope that my body is able to still communicate in the way I want it to communicate — with changes, but still being able to access the idea.
And I think I should have fun, too. I think I should remind myself to do that. That’s going to help.
It is! You have to find the joy.
Well, that’s interesting — what we’re performing is about joy, and I’m sitting here freaking out. I’m dancing with fun people. I have lean in to what the piece is actually about and have fun.