FEEDBACK AND REFLECTIONS ON Mr. TOL E. RAncE
BRENDA DIXON-GOTTSCHILD: REFLECTIONS
MR. TOL E.RANCE AT KUMBLE CENTER
It’s a rainy, chilly urban landscape outside. We hunt for street parking, finally give up, choose a parking lot and race, dodging raindrops, to the Kumble Theater Center. We still have time to choose seats, five together, and ogle the audience, some already seated, some just arriving. Then we wait for the performance of Camille Brown’s Mr. TOL E RAncE to begin. It’s well past 7:30. Then we wait some more. And some more. There are technical problems, so Shay Wafer, director of this 651-Arts-produced event, comes onstage to inform and pacify us. But she didn’t have much to do: the beautiful 651 Arts audience was not only patient but also in a great mood, talking with one another, asking Wafer amusing questions. Somehow it seemed that we knew we were in for something worth waiting for. And “CP time” is something that isn’t foreign to any of us. By the time the show begins we are simply revved up, not made impatient, by the wait.
Here are my impressions, jotted down during the performance and enhanced for readability.
Beautifully designed opening credits, with faces of African American performers placed on the heads of other bodies, lead us into the spirit of this drama dance discourse. There’s the Nicholas Brothers, Moms Mabley, Whoopie, Richard Pryor, and more. Bits from old films showing performers, some in blackface, some doing cakewalks, simultaneously living the stereotype AND “changing the joke to slip the yoke,” to quote Ralph Ellison’s famous phrase. Some are doing beautiful movement. There’s a small segment of the wonderful Jeni LeGon dancing, a nod to one of the many “invisibilized” black performers on whose backs whites made their fortunes.
A male dancer comes onstage while these images are projected. He is joined by others in a staccato unison of jumps, snatches at torso, then breaking; they’re like marionettes—puppets obligated to do certain kinds of movement, sometimes with their strings broken, sometimes taut, pulling at them. They all gather around the piano and demonstrate a bevy of stereotypical facial gestures/features and movement tropes—lazy, promiscuous, half-witted—interspersed with bits of tap dance. The work gathers speed and intensity, and real serious gorgeous dancing is happening inside the grotesque masks, so we “get” it, the mix of the beauty and the horror of white stereotypes imposed on black characters—no: on black people.
This is a fast-paced piece. African-American television show banners are now on the screen: Good Times; Different Strokes; Fat Albert; Fresh Prince (and the dancers sing along with his theme song). Three dancers, now barefoot and without the caps and jackets and tap shoes of the previous scenes, perform in contrast an adagio of simple stretching, folding, reaching movements, at one point raising the clenched fist of black resistance, but accomplishing this as a gesture seamlessly integrated in their lovely dance.
Camille Brown’s dance, while the show, Amen, is projected is just wonderful: she is a first among equals and continues to hone her performance chops.
Now a male duet performs a slow “but this is who we really are” movement sequence that counters and challenges the rawness that otherwise spills onstage.
Oh, and the pianist, Scott Patterson is just a constant wonder and through-line, performing stage magic from beginning to end. He blesses us all, performers and spectators, with a wonderful, deeply felt piano solo separating the two acts. He plays melodic crescendos on the African American musics we love with all the technique plus emotion plus high-affect juxtapositions that we know as the unique hot-and-cool of the Africanist aesthetic.
The “Nigga That’s Me” section in this act verbally grips and sends up the black stereotypes that have us laughing to keep from crying, laughing but the laugh gets stuck in the throat, laughing with shame at laughing at oneself. Then, in white gloves and with Patterson playing gorgeous ragtime piano, the dancers take on “bitch/ho/dummy” stereotypes, but in double-time, as in the speed of old silent movies. Here their facial expressions are priceless (demonstrating that these dancers are actors as well). Camille Brown seems to channel Charlie Chaplin as much as she represents black stereotypes. She has Chaplin’s inimitable quality of plasticity in facial expression, somatic litheness, lightness, and agility, and just plain charm. Something about her eyes...
The same male dancer who warmed the stage with his opening solo is on a darkened stage, still wearing white gloves. He runs through a gamut of stereotypes, almost as an exorcism: do them until it kills you or until you kill them. . . . The curtain at the back of the stage drops to reveal the rest of the cast, together with the solo male moving in slow motion and accompanied by electronic sounds (pianist Patterson had exited by now). Their slow motion accelerates to staccato writhings on the floor. Only Camille Brown is left standing, and we hear her voiceover reflecting on stereotypes. Scott Patterson returns, playing Louis Armstrong’s theme, What A Beautiful World. It is Camille’s moment. Indescribably poignant. Camille, channeling all those images; all those Ancestors on whose shoulders she and you and I managed to get here, this rainy night; all that pain, mixed with enough pleasure to keep us going; all that history, in her sweet, expressive movements. She shows the heartbreak of breaking the mask in her timing and charismatic sense of presence. She’s entreating us to see—to really see—and to understand. She writes the book of freedom’s dream through the vocabulary of her black dancing body. And I am weeping.
Of course, thunderous applause, and totally, rightfully so. The cast emerges to take their bows, African style, with each dancer bowing individually and doing his/her own improv. We were taken to school, we had church, we had a revival meeting this night. And we were cleansed
BRENDA DIXON-GOTTSCHILD: OBSERVING CAMILLE A. BROWN’S PHILADANCE REHEARSAL
Five dancers in her new piece for the James Brown celebration at the Apollo.
Camille: “Everybody in the trio make sure your feet are clear.”
It’s fun movement, 1970s funk, to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Vintage dances like the Slop and the Jerk coolly integrated into her choreography..
To capture the ethos of the era there’s a party scene.
I love it when the choreographer can say, “How does that begin?’ –and know that she can trust the dancers’ muscle memory to bring it forth. Asking the question, as if to say, “Show me what I’ve created, so I can move it on.”
And always fascinating to me, this process of creation. Such a rich experience, watching this rehearsal.
At one point, silence in the room: everybody, everything standing still for a good 30 seconds, the dancers suspended in rapt attention while Camille, on her own dancing body, quietly thinks through the next movement.
The multi-task process:
- Choreographer tries movement on her body
- Has the dancers try it on for size
- Then adjusts the movement—the size—and tailors it so the individual body moves are consonant with the overall stage picture the choreographer is aiming for.
She’s improvising on the first movements she’s given them in a particular sequence—cleaning up and reducing some of the footwork in order to make a clearer ensemble picture.
A lovely way of producing comedy: not through sight gags but through the movement itself. In one section a character enters with hat and cape (James Brown? A Superfly wannabe?) moving in caricature of the somatics of the era. So body language the carrier of comedy. Also carried in facial expressions (especially by “Tammy”): the “mask of the cool,” as Robert Farris Thompson would say: lips pursed, chin lifted, eyes almost closed at points—and then BOOM, the tongue hanging half out!
Some very nice acting going on! True to Danco form, they use drama as well as dance.
As full-out as the movement is, Brown asks for certain parts to be toned down, again for the sake of the full picture. She warns the dancers, “You gotta look DOPE—it can’t look like Hallowe’en. It should be low and tight,” she says to the JB/Superfly character. She continues, “The ego has to be as large as the shoes, the hat, etc.,” encouraging the dancers to use dramatic intention to enhance the movement. “His nonchalance,” she says, “contrasts with how much you are (all) being manipulated. Just contrasting his nonchalance.”
More refining: one torso roll movement, for the opening of the second section—she tells them it’s “too bouncy. It’s gotta be 2 a.m. in the basement; you’ve had a couple of drinks. . . .” In other words, she’s telling them it’s not about moving up and down, but “gettin’ down.” She finally says, “It’s too safe!”
One female dancer admits, “I’m worried about not bouncing—how to direct that energy so the right texture comes out.” So Camille responds, “How would you do it if you weighed 500 lbs? Let’s try it!” The dancer makes a stab at it, but the choreographer says, “You’re moving like I told you to move like 500 lbs—not like you WEIGH 500 lbs. You have to feel that weight on you.” What she’s saying is for them to forget their studio dance training and return to the roots of the movement. “Once you get the intent, you don’t have to put a lot of energy into it.” She points this out by saying, “You’re not using your upper bodies. It’s gotta loosen up.”
Actually, she’s trying to get them out of the hip-hop modality to move in the soulful, soultrain, groundedness of the James Brown era.
Again, the dancers are motionless and quiet while Camille tries to get to the essence of what she wants. The air in the room is still, while they concentratedly direct their thoughts and energies toward her, willing her to find what she needs to give them. There is something beautiful and unique about moments like this that make sense only to performing artists who have themselves lived through the creativity of the rehearsal process. Finally she hits on it and says, “Stank!” She encourages them through the imagery in this word to get “in the step” but to be two steps from going overboard. (This part of her direction is wonderful: she doesn’t want stereotypes, but embodied archetypes, rather.) Like Pam Grier, she says, but with a sophistication to it. And so what she wants is in the mood of Superfly—slick, and IN IT, but not making fun of it. She tells them “If we’re gonna honor this, we have to do THIS—not what it has become!”
NATALIE JOHNSON (PERIDANCE CERTIFICATE PROGRAM)
Camille A. Brown’s piece, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE,” incorporated many theatrical elements that came together to form a cohesive, comprehensive production. Abstract art in the form of movement and sound, comedy of gesture, dialogue, and facial expression, and a ranging, poignant social commentary all came into play. This piece even evoked for me the principles beginning with Sergei Diaghilev in terms of musical, theatrical, and choreographic integration into performance production. Along with the movement, there was acting, live piano accompaniment, and a delicately designed “set” of a slideshow in the background, that greatly influenced the flow and feeling of the evening. Although still primarily a ‘dance’ performance, the evening was an overall artistic experience leaving the audience in appreciation of the performance arts as an entire genre. The dialogue that concluded the evening, moderated by Piper Anderson, only solidified the feeling that this was no mere fluff entertainment, but rather a show meant to enact change and ignite reflection.
The choreography was clearly crafted to bolster the idea of humanization, reality, and weight, rather than the ethereal, unattainable quality that can so often accompany dance performance. Instead of being made purely to impress the audience with high legs and athletic jumping feats, it was speed, precision and design that highlighted the skill of the dancers. Through these devices, the choreography did illustrate strong technical training, but also the dancers maintained their fallibility and vulnerability as people. Breath, weight, gesture, and emotion connected the performers to the audience in a palpable way. Abstract narrative also played a key role, particularly in the two concluding solos, danced by Waldean Nelson and Camille A. Brown. From these, the audience saw two different examples of an identity struggle manifesting itself violently, confusingly, and irreparably, leaving scars unseen to the naked eye. Brown’s solo ended with the hint of a glimmer of hope—a wave of the hand—which could result in many interpretations.
Almost everything about this performance resulted in feeling personal. The dancers’ movement appeared honest and grounded, and hearing their voices and the dialogues they created were a glimpse into who they were, not just how they move. Much of the dialogue was intentionally uncomfortably humorous, “inappropriate”, and quickly transitioned from playful to disturbing through its revealing of racial and gender stereotypes. The nature of their speaking made me feel more personally invested in the performers, and engaged as a viewer of their experience. Finally, the presence of a live musician, Scott Patterson, truly added an intimate element. Not only was Patterson there for accompaniment, but also he seemed engaged in the performance and the performers often interacted with him and around his piano. Again, this feature brought the stage down from its holy, unreachable place, and made it real, tangible, and relatable to me. All of these personal elements were critical in creating an atmosphere that would foster the productive conversation to follow regarding race, stereotypes, burdens, histories, and the taboo.
The discussion afterward was one element that made this performance unique, as it was not simply an audience/artist Q&A, but a vital component to the performance itself. Inevitably, it seems this specific work opens wounds for many in the audience, regardless of the color of your skin. To make a generalized statement of the message of this work, I would say it was that racism (and so-called ‘reverse racism’) makes an impact on everyone—racism is not a “black person issue”, but a human issue and we must approach it universally. The show’s depictions definitely struck a chord within me, though it doesn’t involve African American prejudices directly. Speaking as a light-skinned Hispanic woman, I have felt racism from the very community I descend from, having lived in largely Hispanic populations for most of my childhood. Though I classify myself as Hispanic, others often unknowingly categorize me as a “white girl” which often comes the assumption of white privilege, wealth, and ignorance. This is despite the fact that my mother grew up in poverty in Argentina. Brown’s work helped me recognize these experiences, and not totally disqualify them, but learn from them as they contribute to my identity and informed empathy for others. I believe her work comes with the understanding that everyone has their own familiarity with racism, whether it be directly tied to personal experience, deep shame from the past, or ignorance as to the full breadth and nature of prejudice in our society. In a show such as this, the question of aesthetics can only be an afterthought to the massive “job well done” owed to Brown and her dancers for their bravery, honesty, and humanity that may incite the same from their viewers.
“Last week I saw a powerful and oh so relevant performance by Camille A. Brown & Dancers at ADF – – it was AMAZING and is still moving me, that is all I can say! You MUST see Mr. TOL E. RAncE if it comes to a city near you.”
~April Berry, Former Principal of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Arts & Education Consultant
“Camille WOW! Thank you for the gift you all are giving to the audience. I was very thankful for the Q and A at the end also. I think it helps integrate the piece and creates community. I am a sculptor, and I try to bring disparate pieces together to make something whole, something that tells a story. Your work, to me, is a powerful, beautiful, entertaining, provocative, profound, shape shifting piece of art. Thank you.”
~Renee Leverty ,Sculptor, Artist, Owner of Pleiades Gallery
“A member of the audience said to me ‘This is the kind of work that has the potential to change the American cultural landscape.’ The fact that Camille has tackled the issue head on in an era that many are calling post-racial….is not only commendable, it is courageous.”
~Baraka Sele, Producer/Consultant
“Thank you Camille A. Brown & Dancers for giving voice to some of the often unspoken truths of being African American; working regardless, maintaining family in spite of, being humorous because of, persevering when no way is apparent….The ancestors are grateful to be acknowledged, we are grateful to be heard and witnessed, the children will be and are stronger because of YOU!”
“Seeing Mr. TOL E. RAncE was one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Mr. TOL E. RAncE is an opportunity for us as a country and a people to look at what has happened, what is happening, and be better able to evaluate how to move forward. I want to thank Camille for her brilliant work as it has inspired much of the work I’m doing now. Thank you to Camille A. Brown & Dancers for your hard work, willingness, and fearlessness to help guide us into this next era of creating art and defining Black art and where it can go.”
~Kendra ‘Vie Boheme’ Dennard, Dancer/Singer
“Camille A. Brown and Dancers are spectacular. As a choreographer, Camille’s ability to create work that touches the heart and soul of every person sitting in the audience is incredible. The production of Mr. TOL E. RAncE is captivating, educational, inspiring, heartbreaking, funny, relevant and necessary. What is art if it doesn’t entertain as well as educate, if it doesn’t hurt us as well as heal enlighten and inspire us. Camille’s work does all of this and more. There are no words to adequately expressed how extremely honored I was to be asked to moderate student night.Anytime young people are moved to the extent that they were moved watching Camille A. Brown and dancers that night is a time to cherish and acknowledge that something special has indeed been created and shared.”
~Stacey Muhammad, Filmmaker
“As an educator, you hope to expose your kids to lessons in history, perseverance, art, culture, stamina, determination, modernism… My GirlsTalk girls left the Mr. TOL E. RAncE performance enlightened. They were excited to see that these important topics are being dissected outside of our GirlsTalk classroom – and they felt a part of the discussion! Camille A. Brown & Dancers are initiating a movement. And GirlsTalk is right there with them.”
~Aurora Barnes, Director of GirlsTalk/GuysTalk Program, Harlem, NYC
“Our students walked away with so much history and knowledge from seeing this amazing production and we of the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy of Camden NJ extend our warmest thanks to you for making such a trip possible. Please continue to do all that you do for students and the community.”
~Arthur Leo Taylor, Teacher at Creative Arts Morgan Village
“Courageous, daring, bold, passionate, motivating, inspiring, and, when you get down to it, REAL are a few words to describe Camille A. Brown’s brilliant achievements in Mr. TOL E. RAncE. I believe that Camille has created one of the most important and valuable works of our generation. Change happens with courageous action”. Camille A. Brown took action.”
~Kiesha Lalama, Teacher – Point Park University
“Camille Brown and her dancers present developed topics and reveal the type of intellectual insight that can be developed through dance and other media. …these dancers fully embody matters concerning racism, stereotypes, and an unavoidable reality; that while our nation campaigns ‘change’ and positivity, we have not truly progressed yet.”
~Luna Lemus-Bromley, Point Park University
“I now know, that the style of dance, I love, the kind I always imagined, in my head, exists in real life.”
~Tatiana, 13, GirlsTalk/GuysTalk Program
“Mr. TOL E. Rance is a work that goes so far beyond just dance; it brilliantly handled the issue of racism that still lives on in our world no matter how much society may try to ‘silence’ it.”
” The second I left the theatre I was silent, and in awe, for about an hour. Finally, when I got back to school, I didn’t know what to do and how to go about life after an experience like that. I then remembered what you said. You wanted to create a work that not only celebrates your ancestry but also a piece that encouraged people to talk about difficult issues. Camille you have an incredible amount of courage to create something that is so personal. It requires a great amount of strength to be so vulnerable publicly. I have never seen a piece of art that did exactly what art is made to do – comment on society and help people see the world differently.”
~Kyle Weiler, The Juilliard School
“I walked away from Mr. TOL E. RAncE knowing that its alright for me, as an African-American male, to not give into that “ghetto, hood” stereotype; that it doesn’t make me any less of a man. I’ve always known that but Ms. Brown’s work just reinforced it.”
~Christian Warner, Point Park University
“I loved the music for the show. I loved watching the music performed live, too. I’ve seen this company twice now, the first time, at the Joyce Theater, so, I feel like I know the dancers now. They communicate to me.”
~Tyra, 12, GirlsTalk/GuysTalk Program
“I walked away from Mr. TOL E. Rance knowing that its alright for me, as an African-American male, to not give into that “ghetto, hood” stereotype; that it doesn’t make me any less of a man. I’ve always known that but Ms. Brown’s work just reinforced it.”
“This is our second time seeing Camille A. Brown & Dancers. We talk about stereotypes in GirlsTalk, so it was really cool to see the discussions about representation in the media performed on stage through dance.”
~Kortnie, 13, GirlsTalk/GuysTalk Program
“Congratulations on Mr. TOL E. RAncE! It is an amazing work of art, and it sticks with anyone who watches it. This show has impacted some of the ways I look at life, and the ways I look at dance. The strength, beauty, physicality, devotion and integrity to the steps that you and your dancers showcase are indescribable. I am inspired by your work. I am also inspired by how you treat your dancers. The dialogue at the end of the show gave your dancers a voice, and I have never seen this. The trust you put in your dancers to represent you, your work, and to be able to speak about it is something I hope I can achieve with whoever I dance for in the future. You also made a clear example of how dance can be used to stem social change. I have always been told that dance should do this, but I have never been completely sure of how this is possible, and last night you showed me. THANK YOU! A quote that stuck with me that you said, “I’m not going to read somebody else’s judgment of how I tell my history.”
~Victor Lozano, The Juilliard School
“It was funny!! I had fun. Sometimes, some dance is boring for me – But Camille A. Brown makes it very entertaining.”
~Osa, 12, GirlsTalk/GuysTalk Program