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In May of 2016, the choreographer Camille A. Brown filmed a TED Talk in which she introduces 25 so-called social dances that evolved from the African and African American communities—from the juba, an ecstatic dance enslaved Africans performed to remember their homeland, to the ‘80s craze known as the Kid n’ Play (aka “the funky Charleston”). Brown and her diverse crew of dancers demonstrate these infectious moves and the ways in which they’ve historically been co-opted by the wider community. “The present always contains the past, and the past shapes who we are and who we will be,” Brown says in the video. Brown has seized on that notion in her own choreography, which draws from styles rooted in the African American tradition (including hip-hop, jazz, and tap) and merges them with the language of modern dance.
This approach is evident in her latest major project, an ambitious trilogy that kicked off in 2012. The first installment, Mr. TOL E. RAncE, toed a fine line between humor and stereotyping and urged the audience to ponder the distinction. Brown, 38, believes that the choreographer’s job is to set things in motion, leaving viewers and performers to fill in the blanks. “The dancers I choose have to be open to creating a story for themselves—and investigating that work,” she tells me. The second piece, 2015’s ebullient Black Girl: Linguistic Play, looked at how “the language of the body can communicate when words cannot.” The final installment, Ink, will play at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, as part of the school’s Peak Performances series in early February. (It had a December run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.) “The contributions of African Americans within dance have not been honored or exposed the way they should,” says Brown, who sees Ink as “my opportunity to write in those stories.”
Brown often performs with her company, as she did in Black Girl and does in Ink. Onstage she is petite but fierce, ropes of braid whipping in the air. She grew up in Jamaica, Queens—she still lives a few blocks from her mother’s home—and attended the famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, as well as the Ailey School. Last March, she landed the kind of job her LaGuardia classmates dreamed of: choreographing the Broadway revival of the 1990 musical Once on This Island, now playing at Circle in the Square Theatre.
A Caribbean riff on star-crossed love, driven in large part by dance, the musical felt like a natural fit. “I’ve been trained in African dance since I was a little girl,” Brown says. “This way of movement has always been inside me. Everything has really led me to this moment and prepared me for this.”
When we spoke, shortly before the show’s opening, Brown was fine-tuning a number called “We Dance” and delighting in the challenge of working with an ensemble featuring only one trained dancer. She was already seeing rhythmic parallels between her trilogy and this new creation. “It’s wonderful how things cross and intersect, but I have to check myself,” she says. “I don’t want you to say, ‘That looks like a piece Camille did two years ago.’ I want you to say, ‘It looks like Camille.’”