University of Michigan
“There were so many things I enjoyed about your show. Your solo made me cry. It felt like a physical manifestation of my journey as a woman, as a black woman, as an artist, as a black woman artist who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. A demonstration of the struggles to break free of the shackles that imprison us both figuratively and literally. The depth of the struggle you were able to communicate through movement and the use of your voice was extremely powerful.
During the puppetry section, I thought the use of the scrim was extremely powerful. The huge looming shadows produced felt so poignant. It added a dimension of further commentary on how these representations and caricatures are always with us, in our consciousness, in the back of our experience, in our history. Even when we are not aware of how they affect us, they remain. Towering over us. Overshadowing our growth and progress.
I felt like the male solo also made effective use of the looming version of himself. I liked that they were not always in sync. Sometimes, he would do a move either right after or before the larger version of himself. It was as if he was in and out of sync with the representations of himself. Or that his true identity overlapped with, intersected with, and was at times, at odds with the representations he portrayed.
There were so many powerful aspects. I could go on and on. I loved the use of Erykah Badu’s song. The use of actual historical images. The way you guys used catch phrases with repetition (the Meisner exercise, I am a Meisner trained actress so I was super excited to see it being used) to change the meaning. Is there anything specific that you wanted feedback on that you didn’t get from the talkbacks?”
“I was interested in how the work, to my mind, seemed both an exuberant celebration and political commentary on American black culture in past and present, media-based representations.”
“I found myself reflecting on stereotypes in general— watching the work made me look inward to assumptions often placed upon me, and the assumptions I may place upon others. While the work centered on race, my reflections permeated to consider a variety of minority populations often essentialized in literature and the media.”
“In the post-performance dialogue, I was struck by Brown’s re-telling of how audience members sometimes take the defensive upon watching the work. I then ruminated on the expectations often placed upon concert dance. I correlate the notion of “the entertainer,” as emphasized as a black stereotype, with the ideals placed upon dance in general. More work should challenge us as this one does to think politically about the body, embodied history and habits of representation.”
“Aside from thematic messages of the work, I also really enjoyed the dancing! The virtuosity of the quick-twitch and culmination of diasporic and western aesthetics was a joy to watch as a celebration of the body, rhythm and passion in movement.”
“I am grateful for and inspired by Brown’s bravery to create this work. I am deeply appreciative that she was willing to share this work with the academic community here at OSU. I hope there are further platforms for this work, and others of Brown’s, to be presented to students and professionals as a way to expound the assumptions of the black community and generate more dialogues about dance as a medium for advocacy.”
“I was really struck by the intensity, precision and musicality of the dancing from start to finish in Mr. TOL E RAncE. Choreographically, I responded to Brown’s use of space: how she moved dancers around and kept my eye moving throughout the show. I am currently a teaching assistant for a choreography class called “Group Forms” here at Ohio State and I will recommend to the instructor that she show excerpts from this work from YouTube to her course the next time she teaches it.”
“I’ve seen a lot of incredible dance, and I’ve seen a lot of dance “about” social issues, but it’s rare to see something in which athletic, nuanced, highly physical dancing effectively speaks about and to an issue, especially history and race. The choice to not end the dance with the dance but with a discussion was really powerful, and I’m thankful I got to witness it, and have a discussion about the work, race, and representation of African-Americans as we walked home after we saw the performance.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed the work. As an African American male with an interest in dance and choreography, I try to inquire about how I can create meaningful and educational work. Camille’s piece definitely inspired me to continue my own journey in that regard. I felt as though the way she used bodies in space was magnificent. There was a constant ebb and flow that seamlessly weaved dancers in-and-out of each other, and the stage space. I loved how she developed iconic cultural gestures such as “Dynomite.” I was fully engaged in the way she used these gestures as a way to get at certain cultural and racial stereotypes. Finally, I was very impressed with how the dancers were able to manipulate time on stage through their performance of the work. I truly believed that they all lived in the separate time periods that they were displaying throughout the work. They were able to capture the similarities of the culture throughout the decades, but more importantly, the subtle differences between each generation.”
Professor Alison Bory
In the course, Dancing Diasporas: The African-‐American Concert Dance Tradition, students were asked to watch, read, think about, and respond to a variety of written and performance texts. Loosely, the class ‘traced’ a history of black (concert) performance, thinking about the various ways African-‐American dancing bodies have both been represented, and have claimed agency on the concert stage. These students watched Mr. TOL E. RAncE, after we had read and discussed several articles about minstrelsy and the legacy of that performance form. Their responses to the work were, as a result, primarily in conversation with the ideas offered in those readings and our discussion of the form. Due to class schedule, we didn’t have a lot of time to discuss the work immediately following the screening. We were able to chat for a few minutes, but were largely limited due to the time period of our class. In that conversation, the students primarily expressed their appreciation for the dancing and the dancers. They remarked that the choreography and the choreographic frame for the work had made them think about our larger conversations, but many
weren’t immediately able to articulate their thoughts, though they seemed to appreciate the many comments made by other audience members. Further discussion of the work and their responses appeared in their online writing forums, in which they were asked to offer each other provocations/questions about things they were watching/reading and respond to each other’s provocations/questions. I’ve included the relevant written responses below:
In Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin’s “Lessons in Blackbody Minstrelsy: Old Plantation and the Manufacture of Black Authenticity”, she discusses the roles assigned to black performers in McClellan’s Minstrel School, and how blacks reacted to these assignments. She poses the question, “were the minstrel school students directed to be individuals in their performance qualities in order to present a more “authentic” representation of black people?” She then asks, “was this a director’s point of view or something the performers brought to the table?” (119) Barbara Webb argues that Old Plantation, though it was intended to display white directed rehearsal and instruction, actually introduced “authentic possibilities”, and that black innovation occurred even under McClellan’s direction. These innovations despite white constraints are perpetuations of traditions discussed in class, such as the cakewalk, which also originated as black expression to counter white restrictions. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin closes by applying this notion of black authenticity to performances today. She states that there is a “false image of blackness constructed and propagated by the mainstream” and believes that this image thrives due to black participation (120). Can authentic black innovation still occur today under the constraints of mainstream roles assigned to black performers? The performace Mr. TOL E. RAncE by Camilla A. Brown & Dancers serves as a satirical performance, somewhat mocking the roles assigned to black performers today. By flashing images of famous black figures in pop culture, from Fat Albert to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, this performance is acknowledging this “false image of blackness” that is so prevalent today. Are Camilla A. Brown & Dancers perpetuating this false image of which Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin disapproves? Or are these dancers proof that authentic black innovation still exists today, as it did in McClellan’s Minstrel School?
At the end of her piece “Lessons in Blackbody Minstrelsy: Old Plantation and the Manufacture of Black Authenticity,” Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin leaves us with thoughts that, in my opinion, are worth exploring and questioning further. “There is a false image of blackness that is constructed and propagated by the mainstream and that, dangerously enough, thrives because of black participation. One wonders what instructions today’s white directors and writers give to black actors in films and television shows that purport to demonstrate the modern black experience. Who’s writing the curriculum for blackness today? Who’s learning it? Even more importantly, who believes it?” I would both agree and disagree with Kootin’s closing sentiments. In its best forms, the descriptions and demonstrations blackness we see and hear through television, film and music tell us stories of perseverance, success, and hard work. TV series like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air depicted the characters of James Avery and Will Smith as smart, devoted, talented, and resilient; all positive traits, and traits present and active in the black men in my life. Music projects like J.Cole’s recent
album 2014 Forest Hills Drive give us an honest portrayal of the experiences of a young black man trying to better himself and those around him, and all of the personal, environmental, and social difficulties that come with that process. However, “reality” shows like Flavor of Love, and songs like “Fight Night,” while entertaining and catchy respectively, can perpetuate the stereotypes that reared their ugly heads a century and some change ago of black people being violent, sex-driven, and reckless. However, the key word there is can, which ties back to Kootin’s questions of who’s learning it and who’s believing it. As she explained in her face, minstrel shows were some people’s first exposure to black “culture,” but in today’s society, people often know an intelligent and successful black man or woman before listening to Migos’ newest mixtape. As Kootin tries to make clear to us, it is important that we as a society are always challenging what is presented in front of us, as in some cases, it can do more eventual damage than present satisfaction. We see this in Camille A. Brown’s work. She is making us think about how these histories are shown in current culture. We have to decide what we want to allow.
I really like how you used the real life examples to make your point about how Black cultural presentation can influence the ways we are perceived by society. I find it interesting though that you did make a point in stating that most people do know a successful and intelligent black man or woman but yet, negative stereotypes of black people as a whole are still very prevalent. Why do you believe that society still separates these “successful and intelligent” black individuals from the rest of the black population, instead of having a different opinion on negative stereotypes that surround us? How does this show up in the dances? Why does this appear on TV? Watching the Brown piece made me continue to think about why this are the stereotypes that still exist.
Like Kebron and Grace, I thought Kootin’s article on “Lessons in Blackbody Minstrelsy: Old Plantation and the Manufacture of Black Authenticity” left the reader with an important question, one that is especially relevant and worth exploring. Who writes, perpetuates, learns, and believes in the modern black experiences churned out by the media? And how does this image operate today? As Kebron explains in his post, the answer isn’t that simple. Through the media, mainstream audiences perceives a “black culture” that is parsed together through a series of overrepresented, negative stereotypes of race, gender, and community. I think that Grace’s questions as to whether or not “authentic black innovation” still exists under the over-projected mainstream image of black performance is at least partially explored in the dialogues after the performances of Mr. TOL E
The dialogue between dancers and the facilitator, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson begins with a five-minute analysis of Camille A. Brown’s choreography. It is filled with articulations of what black performance is today and how the black performer can harness negative stereotypes and begin to author what these stereotypes actually mean. That is, first identifying these representations then understanding who has put these images in place and finally redefining what they mean through resistance. In gesture and through dance, stereotypes become symbols that can be redefined—essentially this is what Dr. Dyson suggests Brown is doing through her choreography. In a moment where black artists and performers are freest to resist the overrepresented image of black culture they have the agency to choose to purport or undermine these representations. I think that Camille A. Brown does the latter in her choreography—transforming these preexisting, negative images. Her choreography questions what is being represented, why it is the way it is, and the future trajectory of these images. When I was looking at Camille A. Brown’s website her work “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play,” seemed to relate to stereotypes and how black innovation and identity thrives beneath these representations. I couldn’t find any clips from the show but like Mr. TOL ERanCE, it seems as though she uses the vocabulary of the stereotype to purport the idea that more exists outside the image. It explores the process of developing the individual and black identity—a journey that does not get represented by the media. Rarely do we get a portrayal of personal development in black characters and Brown seems to relay this story within this particular performance.
Within the Black Diaspora of dance, many of the dance pieces we have viewed evoked historical and cultural resonances in them. For example, we observed pieces such as Revelations, Mr. TOL E RAncE, and Pavement. These concert performances contained historical anecdotes talking about the narratives of slavery, minstrelsy, civil rights movement, and police brutality and simultaneously challenging these narratives in the present. For such dances that are aimed to convey a poignant message or story. Alvin Ailey’s Revelations conveyed the history of slavery and Jim Crow, through dance and the Gospel. Fast-forward decades later, we view performances from choreographers such as Camille Brown’s Mr. TOL E RAncE who presents historical and current demonstrations of minstrelsy and restrictions on how Black people can be. Kyle Abraham’s Pavement illustrates various narratives about Black life in present-day America, particularly surrounding issues on police brutality, racism, and violence. However, a question that occurs to me is whether or not those events in history are being conveyed accurately. Presenting a piece that has historical connotations is different from one that does not. Hence, this could possibly give the choreographers or even the dancers an accountability on how the both piece and the story is being represented. How can we read dance as a historical text? Will the story being told be familiar to most of the audience members or only if one is aware of the issue or event? Is it problematic when choreographers put together narratives from their individual lives with a narrative that is connected to a larger group of people? If so, does that take away the historical message within the piece? In addition, what I find problematic with history today is how it is being presented in all texts. Especially in texts that “discuss” Black history or any type of history of marginalized groups, the history is distorted and is not portrayed accurately. Does the same occur in dance? If so, how? Do choreographers have flexibility in how to portray message and if so, why?
Zakiyyah highlights a valid issue with history told through a text; it tends to be one-dimensional and often excludes black history, therefore eliminating and distorting a prominent aspect of American history. However, the utilization by many choreographers of dance as a historical text possesses the potential to break the distortions that arise in historical texts. Shayla adds the point that dance is easier understood by most people, as body movements and recognizable styles can be an even better representative of history than a text. Visual learning and absorbing movements we see is a very tangible way of learning about a certain era in history or a certain culture. Dance lives on through tradition, and choreographers have the ability to tell the audience a story, whether the technique and movement represent the past or present. Regarding the celebration of African-American history in the United States, Alvin Ailey’s revelations, as mentioned by Zakiyyah, tells the emotional history of slavery and Jim Crowe with the rawness and humanity that a text couldn’t possibly portray. Later, Camille Brown shows us the way race is still about stereotypes and not reality. Kyle Abraham highlights modern day controversies and issues regarding racism, police brutality, and violence often associated with African American culture today. To think about the continuation of dance as a method to display history left out of a textbook, I searched for other pieces by Kyle Abraham. His solo called “Excerpt of Brick”, to one of today’s most popular rappers, Lil Wayne. This choreography drifts towards hip-hop and breaking styles, and further away from ballet and jazz. Abraham’s movements display both structured, trained hip-hop and modern street hip-hop influences. In this solo, his style, along with the music and black mask he chooses to wear, will likely display the cultural today’s atmosphere in a far more accurate and relatable manner than any future textbook will. So to answer Zakiyyah’s initial question and to reiterate both Shayla and Johnathans supporting statements, dance is an excellent form of retelling history.
Can dance be read as historical text, yes. The pieces Zakiyyah mentions are prime examples. The question of whether dance presents a distorted history or not is, to me, the prime concern. Just like historical texts are distorted, dance presents a distorted history. Dance presents a story, as told by the choreographer, this story is inherently biased by the choreographer’s artistic tastes, his experiences, and what he must do to have an audience enjoy it. Just like all art forms reveal a version of history so too does dance, but one must be mindful of its creator, its context, and its purpose; otherwise we will just continue to propagate this distorted history.
To speak to your point about dance being used as a historical text, I believe it absolutely can. Dance just like books can pass on a message. Art in general is a useful method of recording and preserving history. Many forms of art are in fact easier for the everyday person to consume and understand. When asked to do a dance that represents a certain era you can usually come up with something fairly easy. For example, many of us correlate the charleston dance with the 1920’s. Additionally, dance is able to convey messages that cannot be conveyed orally. Sometimes it is easier to watch the body move rather than listen to or read about something. There is just a more in depth understanding that comes along with visual learning. Although the one of the issues that we see when we use dance as a way to describe historical events is the fact that there must be some form of initial understanding of the issue. Because there are no words, audience members are responsible for having some prior knowledge, though not an extensive one. I believe dance as a historical text is not necessarily most useful as a primary text but as a method of enhancing ones understanding of a historical time period or event. We must know the relevance of any given piece before it is useful as a historical text.
Bazemore and Steele
September 15, 2014
Critique 1: Removing the Mask and MR. TOL E. RAncE
The panel discussion Removing the Mask: African American Stereotypes in Performance held at Grace Street Theatre on the evening of September 3 in conjunction with the Friday September 5 evening performance of MR. TOL E. RAncE by Camille A. Brown and Dancers at Grace Street Theatre presented powerful statements and discussions on an issue within the African American culture. Specifically in the media, African Americans have fallen into very specific stereotypes and personalities that shape the way that our culture thinks about African Americans and expects them to behave. Being a Caucasian female who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, this is an issue that I have noticed, but honestly have not thought about or debated in any sort of depth, until now.
There is no way that I will ever truly understand how it feels to be an African American and struggle with racial identity and integrity or their specific stereotypes. However, I do feel as if I now have a better understanding than I did previously. The closest thing I can relate it to is how I feel when people tell me I’m not a typical “blonde girl.” Just because I have light hair, enjoy tanning, and wear crop tops does not mean that I am a vapid and shallow slut incapable of deep thought. So I can relate to not wanting to fit into a culturally demoralizing stereotype, but what I cannot even imagine is the burden of feeling as though my actions are going to affect how people view my entire race. When that was discussed at the panel, all of a sudden something clicked for me in my head and I understood the concept of masking and two-ness. Especially within television and film, generic roles have been made for African Americans, and not ones that necessarily portray the race in a progressive or positive light. Having to deal with people’s expectations of you to act one way and constantly having to prove that you are not simply what is portrayed on TV in order to better your race as a whole, is a struggle and burden that I honestly cannot imagine having to deal with. All I can think is how exhausting it would be to feel as if I had to act like two different people for my entire life.
Attending the panel discussion in relation to Camille A. Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAncE certainly gave me a better understanding and grasp on the societal conflict addressed in the piece. The ideas of “masking” and having a “two-ness” are not topics that I was particularly familiar with before hearing them discussed in more detail, and certainly not in relation to African American stereotypes or racial stereotypes in America. Brown explores both of these ideas within her work in a particularly groundbreaking fashion, while not giving an answer or solution to either issue. She instead, ends her piece questioning her own actions as they relate to racial stereotypes and judgments.
The title Mr. TOL E. RAncE gives the audience a kind of basis for the piece. Tolerance, or lack there of, for African American stereotypes within society and media is the main premise of the work. While the piece itself deals with a serious subject matter, Brown is able to address it with a sense of humor, which is also reflected in the title with the play on words and the capitalization choices.
The shear quickness and transitions of the movement are one of the most powerful choreographic elements of the work. The dancers are not simply moving their bodies through the space with elevated swiftness, but changing their entire energy and persona with such speed, while still portraying every emotion and action with immaculate precision. The commitment of each “entertainer” to their multiple characters, personas, emotions, stereotypes, and masks that elevate and change throughout the piece are what make the work such a powerful statement and question.
One of Brown’s most interesting choreographic decisions is her use of the ensemble versus that of the soloist. While her solo choreography included some slower movements and a much more personal and inward focus, the group work was all about energy, liveliness, and interacting with one another. She brings back dance steps and partnering from past eras and gives them a modern choreographic twist. The interactions between the “entertainers” are for the most part light and humorous. They poke fun at one another and shout out encouragements as they take turns showing off their moves.
Soloists are used as a statement for Brown in Mr. TOL E. RAncE. The first movement of the piece is Brown her self as the single dancer on stage with drawn out shapes and gestures; this solo is repeated later in the work by another “entertainer.” With two other statement solos in the work, both take away the comedy and speed that keeps the piece moving and explore the pain that individuals go through when dealing with their own two-ness and having to mask who they really are. Pain and struggle is much more evident in the solos as the speed of the movement ebbs and flows with the entertainers’ growing frustration. With the slower and more fluid movement qualities within the solo sections, movement ripples and pours throughout every muscle in the body, releasing the understanding that masking is not only mental, but it changes individuals physically as well.
Part of what Brown did so beautifully in the work was not to point fingers or assign blame to anyone in particular. She did not necessarily give her view on how this complex problem can be dealt with and solved, but instead asks the audience and herself to investigate it further. I hope that my generation and the next will be the ones not to look at people in film and on television and think that they got a role for any other reason than they were the best actor for the part. I’m not saying we should be “colorblind.” People are different. Races are different. Cultures are different. Those differences should be acknowledged because they make our culture a beautiful mixture of people. However, differences in race, culture, gender, sexuality, or religion should not be used to exploit groups of people in a negative light, especially through the media.
September 23, 2014
Dawn Marie Bazemore/Judy Steel
Camille A Brown: Mr. Tol E. Rance
On Saturday, September 6, 2014 I was fortunate enough to witness a groundbreaking work exploring African-American stereotypes in the past and present.
Camille A. Brown and her compelling dancers presented the show entitled “Mr. Tol E. Rance” at The Grace Street Theater. Upon attending the show, I sat in on a panel discussion held earlier that week, discussing African-American stereotypes in our society and how people tend to fall victim to taking on these destined roles within black culture. These habits are not necessarily intentional, but based on learned behaviors from the media and how America has evolved historically, it is sometimes difficult to allow oneself to adopt a different perspective.
The title “Mr. Tol E. Rance” signals to me that Brown intended to illustrate how African-Americans unconsciously grow to build a tolerance for inequality overtime. Whether it is how the media portrays black culture as a whole, or how blacks are viewed in the eyes of people within other cultures, or even how black people view themselves. Through use of humor, theatrics, live music, and video/animation, Brown sheds light on the unremitting struggle of the black performer. Throughout the entire work she is dissecting the idea of “double consciousness” and the collective use of a “mask” individuals put on to survive and flourish in black culture.
As an African-American audience member, watching this work definitely provided me with a moment to self-reflect. In a sense, I felt uncomfortable and apprehensive at some points because the topics being discussed were so close to home. I found myself constantly asking questions about how I may be viewed in the eyes of my peers, and whether or not I make any type of contribution to the shaping of these stereotypes. However, during the talk back period at the end of the show, I found comfort in hearing that I am not alone and there are a lot of other people asking these same questions.
The overall backdrop of the work was very minimal. The back curtain was used as an entrance and exit and served many different purposes to support the work. The costumes were minimal as well. The dancers wore either brown or black long sleeve shirts with pants and suspenders. The costumes were not gender or character specific, which created the idea of community. Although the backdrop and costumes were not very extravagant, they still served their purpose in telling the story, which was the most important part. The dancers were very expressive and intriguing to watch.
One element of the show that seemed to be an overarching theme was the constant video projection. These projections were images of the most popular black TV shows of the 70’s and late 90’s. During this time, series that contained a predominantly black cast were uncommon. These TV shows included The Cosby Show, Good Times, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Each time a specific show was displayed, the dancers would do some type of movement or say a popular line to basically embody the feel and plot of that particular show. Although some of the TV shows presented were about the hardships of African-Americans, there were shows like The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that provided uplift for African-Americans, showing that they too can be wealthy and educated.
In this work, Brown did not just use material from the past but she also pulled characters from this current time period. She made reference to popular celebrities like Miley Cyrus and addressed social trends of today; further proving that what we see as black culture has done nothing to defy these stereotypes. There was a scene in which a fight broke out amongst African-American women over something that was totally irrelevant, which then turned into a modern day minstrel show mocking African-American interaction in this generation. The dancers made fun of the fad of “twerking” and also addressed the way black people talk to one another. The phrase “nigga, that’s me” was very prevalent throughout this scene, ultimately showing how disrespectful African-Americans are to themselves and others without even realizing it. The use of white gloves and obvious sarcasm suggested that that is the way people of other cultures view them and that their behavior is the primary cause of why they are seen in that light.
Another overarching theme, as well as powerful element is the live piano. The piano was set on stage right and was constantly being played throughout the entire work. The piano and the dancers had a strong connection with each other from the very beginning. The piano was there not just as a prop, but also as support to dictate the dancers transitions and interactions. The pianist seemed to be the narrator of the work, manipulating and directing each character.
My favorite part of the entire show was where the idea of “double consciousness” was brought to life. There was a projection of a man who happened to be the soloist that was actually present on the stage (Timothy Edwards). Edwards and the projection began simultaneously doing the same movements. As the solo progressed the room became very thick from the emotion that you could feel from Edwards. My sentiments did not just rely with Edwards on stage, but with the projection of him as well. He was not just moving physically, but there was an obvious internal struggle taking place.
Camille A. Brown’s solo at the conclusion of the show was extremely powerful. Her movement was mainly subtle and gestural but spoke volumes. With her being a black performer, you could see how it was personal for her. The stage was dimly lit creating a sense of intimacy. It was as if she and I were the only two people in the room. Her gestures and focus were direct and the moments where she found release and sustainment left me breathless. I think her solo was an illustration of her completely letting go and moving past the stereotypes that people may have confined her to.
Mr. Tol E. Rance exemplified a snapshot of not only what it is like to be black, but also what it is like to be black in America. We all come from different places and have different stories. It is very unfortunate that other cultures willingly agree to adopt this misconception of who we are as a people. Although these stereotypes and false perceptions have been the prevailing image in the media, I am grateful to say that my day-to-day interaction is nothing like what is portrayed. I am blessed to have come from a background of African-Americans who are self-motivated and truly inspiring. Their encouraging words have always let me know that they see so much more me in me than I see in myself. Even though, it’ll be difficult to get past the almost inescapable idea of “double consciousness,” we as African-Americans should first make the conscious decision to perceive one another and ourselves in a more positive light, which will in turn challenge the perception of others.
Art W 264
Dec. 13, 2014
On the small black board set on the stage, she started running. She was powerful, chugging through depth and stories, matching each step with the sound of the piano in the background. There were two noises: the music and her breath. All other sounds were silenced by the pure emotion spilling out of each stride of movement. She suddenly had to stop. Exhaustion struck, and Camille Brown, the choreographer of the piece, began to melt onto the black board, vulnerable and tired.
Brown is currently working on Black Girl: Linguistics Play, which premieres in September 2015. The choreographer and artist is “fighting against the title” of her work by exploring the stories of Black women throughout the world and exposing their “Black girl story.” Brown wants to challenge the audience. She wants to challenge the perception of the audience members after they read the title of the work.
Challenge is something Brown has faced throughout her life, but she has also grown tremendously from it. “You have to have a conviction, and you have to be okay with people not liking it, or people challenging you, or people loving it. You have to be ready for it all,” said Brown.
The 34-year-old spoke openly about the negative feedback she has received about Black Girl. She looks young, her bright eyes emphasized with shimmery eye shadow and her reddish-pink hair bringing life to the dimly lit room. One man approached Brown after an excerpt of the piece and asked why she was talking specifically about Black females. Brown was confused. “I did an all-male piece in 2008, and I didn’t hear anyone say ‘why are you doing a piece about all men?’” said Brown. After the man approached her again, telling Brown about women’s experiences around the world, Brown felt compelled to respond. “You do not have to show me the destruction and all of these traumatic experiences of other women to prove or invalidate my story,” she said. “I am a Black female, and I’m going to talk about stories from the Black female perspective.”
Black Girl is a way for Brown to respond to the assumptions that people make of Black women. She focuses on showing other sides than the two typical tropes: the strong Black female and the angry Black female.
Said Brown, “As strong as you think I am, I’m also very tired.” Brown laughs. She laughed between sentences, she spoke of crying and weakness, and she showed her humanity. Black Girl does the same. Through dance, Brown creates a reality, a life of stress and exhaustion. One audience member said after the performance: “that was my life on that stage.”
Brown began dancing at age three in Jamaica, Queens, New York, but she did not consider dance to be a career until high school, when she attended LaGuardia High School. At the time, the Alvin Ailey School was across the street, and she trained there, as well. While she loved dancing, she was never considered to have a dancer’s body. After getting so many injuries, a doctor told her that she just did not have the ideal body for a dancer. Said Brown, “I think he was saying it about my shape.” She trailed off, looking to the side.
During Brown’s first two years at North Carolina School of the Arts, she struggled when she was not picked to be in pieces. “I don’t think I was ever considered a technical dancer, but I was always considered a mover,” said Brown.
Brown’s relationship with her mother seemed to carry through her trials and tribulations. Starting when she was three, Brown rented musicals and watched them on the weekends with her mom. That is how she began to take interest in dance. In college, when Brown felt uneasy because she had yet to be in a piece, she cried. She then called her mom for support, who told her to “take your time to cry; you deserve that,” she said. “Eventually you’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to survive.” Brown started to choreograph after this. It was all she had, and it was where her talent lay.
“This is my voice,” she said. “I can actually create, and I don’t have to have to wait for someone to allow me to do it.” Suddenly a new sense of self and confidence emerged. However, during Brown’s junior and senior year of college, her body began to change, and she was casted in dances as a performer. After college she danced with Ronald Brown, the head of a company. After a year, one of her classmates from college sent her a Hubbard Street 2 flier, suggesting Brown submits her work to the company. “I was not even focused on choreography at the time” said Brown. “But I was just so moved. I hadn’t spoken to her in a year.” Brown submitted her work, and her successes began immediately.
“Now fast forward” said Brown. “Me being by myself has shaped my creativity and how I work.” Brown now has a company of her own, consisting of Black dancers, mostly above the age of 28. While she focuses mostly on racism and the stereotypes of Black people, Brown creates separate pieces with separate concepts entirely.
Her excerpt of Mr. Tol E. Rance depicts minstrelsy, a form of entertainment depicting stereotypes of Black people. The show ranges from exposing historical minstrelsy to modern-day minstrelsy. After a calmer section in the show, the group suddenly broke out into the theme song for Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The members of the company were shouting and dancing, showing another form of stereotype depicted on television. Brown’s interest in addressing modern minstrelsy actually emerged after noticing the way in which Blacks are depicted by society at large. Brown reflected on seeing the first Real World, a reality TV show based on young adults from different backgrounds living together for the first time. “I was just really disheartened to see these representations of Black females,” she said in response to the show. “We’re angry; we’re ignorant; we fight. That’s how we resolve things.” And that was all that was shown. Mr. Tol E. Rance addresses this concept precisely. It had an aspect of reality TV: the audience was watching a group of people live their lives and interact. The relationships between each dancer were clear, and with each change in music, a new character emerged.
Brown speaks of times when she thinks hard about her response to a situation to avoid being perceived as one of the Black female tropes. “They’re not going to hear anything else,” she said. “So sometimes it’s disheartening to have to think so hard.” People choose ways to define Brown. She is a Black female artist, but people sometimes select their own words to describe her, along with many artists. This mirrors the way in which minstrelsy functions: people only see one side to a person or group of people, and the stereotypes form as a result.
Her work is usually well received, but Brown has had to address the reason to her creating Mr. Tol E. Rance quite a bit. People have told her that it is a post-racial society because Obama is in the White House. “Why are you doing this?” is one of the most typical questions Brown has received. And as a creator, Brown has felt hurt by this type of questioning. “But I answered it also in thinking of other ways to challenge them back since they challenged me” Brown said. She began to add current minstrelsy into the show to prove to audience members that racism and prejudice still exist. “Entertainment is still contributing to pushing out and perpetuating these stereotypes,” said Brown. She said she forgot to bring her “door-knocker” earrings for the show performed at Bryn Mawr College on December 5, but she said she loved them. She then added that when she wears them, it is seen as “ghetto,” but when white celebrities wear them, it is seen as “chic.” Brown feels that she cannot wear the earrings in all situations. In many ways, this is a form of modern minstrelsy.
Brown says that she minstrelsy is “coming from pain. It’s coming from people’s sadness, and it turns into joy.” In one scene of the performance, there is a game show. The first two nominees are consistently the same to represent the tropes that continue to live in society as stereotypes. However, the third nominee is left open for current forms of minstrelsy. Her most recent third nominee in the performance was a depiction of Miley Cyrus.
In Mr. Tol E. Rance, Brown goes up to the pianist at one point, singing the lyrics to a song and interacting with him. She genuinely appears happy. Suddenly, the mood changes to a moment of solemnity, leaving the stage bare, aside from a piano, the pianist, and one female dancer on stage. The dancer is suddenly repeating the movement from the beginning of the piece. It is a circle–a cycle–of minstrelsy that exists in the world. It is what humans perceive versus what they understand fully.
“I always have to keep my ear to the ground in terms of what’s happening to continue,” said Brown. “I mean, unfortunately, it continues to be relevant.” Brown wants people to look at history, look at the current times, and be able to identify how each audience member is perpetuating these stereotypes. Through satire and comedy, Mr. Tol E. Rance does just that. After the excerpt, an intermission allowed audience members to discuss and reflect upon the piece. Throughout the auditorium, sighs could be heard and nods were acknowledging what was presented to them. The performance spread awareness; there was no doubt. It opened the eyes of the ignorant, and it motivated the humanitarians.
After each performance, Brown holds a Question and Answer session. Sitting on a chair in the middle of the stage, Brown was open to hearing feedback and thoughts on her pieces. She sat tall, but her face showed that she genuinely wanted to hear the audience’s voice. During previous Q&A sessions, some people have questioned Brown, believing that she has not done enough research into history. Brown responds simply. “You just respond with knowledge. That’s all,” she said. “You respond in awareness.” Brown looks young for her age, but she grew up watching many of the stereotypes that are exposed during the performance. Brown believes that because she looks so young, people assume she does not fully understand. Yet Brown is filled with intelligence. Her eloquent responses to questions during the session proved her skilled level of choreography—she is able to depict entire social ideas through dance— and her incredibly knowledge of Black history.
Brown’s work is focused on social dance. Because she was never considered a technical dancer, she relied on the social dance styles taught by her mentors. Brown talked about the evolution of African dance, but she also talked about how stagnant the style is. “Even past slavery, beyond slavery, there were things that happened in Africa that you could see in the plantation, that you could still see now,” she said. African dance has evolved, but it has maintained its roots. And the social dance styles bring a message Brown loves to convey. “When I teach, I want it to be relatable” she said. “There are certain ways that I am moving, and there’s a certain realness that you could be able to, too.”
Many of the responses that Brown has received to her work have been incredibly emotional. Brown receives emails from people who have been touched by the work or have made them question society. She has received emails from Black women who have encouraged in some way. “That’s when I feel like, ‘okay you’re here for a reason.’” Brown said. “You’re doing this, and whatever you’re doing, people are being challenged by it or inspired by it.”
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.
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!”