SDC- Illuminating the Invisible: An Interview with Dancer/Choreographer Camille A. Brown

By Kamilah Forbes

Dancer and choreographer CAMILLE A. BROWN is everywhere these days. On Broadway with Once on This Island. At the Kennedy Center with ink, a dance work in a trilogy about identity. On NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concertbroadcast. And as she travels in and out of rehearsal halls and between cities, Brown and members of her eponymous dance company (Camille A. Brown & Dancers) lead community engagement activities bringing about social change at schools and community centers. No wonder the Ford Foundation awarded her its Art of Change Fellowship for 2017-18.

Brown spoke recently with her collaborator, colleague, and fellow SOC Member KAMILAH FORBES, Executive Producer at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

KAMILAH| Camille, you are a celebrated choreographer, dancer, creative thinker, and dance ethnographer, and you’ve danced with a lot of different companies. Did you always want to be a dancer? How did you first come to dance? And then how did you first come to choreography?

CAMILLE| I always wanted to be a dancer. I always wanted to move. When I was four years old, my mom saw my love of dance and put me in classes at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Queens. I could take up to three classes (tap, ballet, African), but my mom was worried I would be overwhelmed and signed me up for just two (tap and ballet). She saw how disappointed I was at the June concert when the other children were putting on their African costumes to perform. She signed me up for all three the next year.

My mom loved musicals. She still loves them. She would show me all of her favorite dance scenes, and we would watch them over and over again. I also loved Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. I learned the choreography to all the shows and dance videos and performed in the living room. I also made up dances to the opening credits of the cartoons I used to watch. As I got older, I continued taking dance classes but didn’t know that it was something I could do professionally. I was accepted into LaGuardia High School (the Fame school) and went to the Ailey School. Being an Ailey student, I could see the Ailey dancers in action. I said, “Oh my goodness, I can travel the world, dance, and get paid for it? Wow!”

The problem was that while I had teachers who believed in me and would help me achieve my goals, I also had teachers for whom I didn’t fit “the ideal” body type. I was being introduced to the business aspect of dance. There was a specific look, and I didn’t have it. Those classes were a struggle. I felt invisible and like a failure.

Since I wasn’t getting corrections from specific teachers, I decided to take notes that they were giving to everyone else. I always felt that I had to fight and work extra hard.

My weight was a big issue. I was told that I was too big and needed to lose weight. I was never surprised when my evaluations came back assigning me to go to the nutritionist. I thought I would be done with weight issues once I started college, but it followed me there as well.

THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE at Dallas Theater Center, choreographed by Camille A. Brown PHOTO Karen Almond

That’s how I got into choreography. For the first two years I was in college [at North Carolina School of the Arts], I didn’t dance in any of the shows. I wasn’t asked to even audition for any of them because I was told I wouldn’t fit the costumes.

I was ready to transfer as soon as I got there, but my mom encouraged me not to give up. She said that I needed to focus on something other than the fact that I’d been rejected and suggested I put all my energy into something specific.

So I told myself, “Let me focus on my composition and improv classes.” I didn’t understand the idea of creating dances, but I realized it was an opportunity for me to express my own voice. I was conditioned to be a dancer – not a choreographer. I found my voice and discovered that I didn’t have to wait for anyone to tell me when to dance. I could create the dance myself.

KAMILAH | That was a real turning point. You were looking to make a space for yourself.

There’s a lot of modern dance rooted in your work as a choreographer and as a dancer. Was theatre a part of your vision that you had for your career from the start? Was it always a part of your passion as you were building your journey in dance?

CAMILLE | The love of theatre never left me, and as I started choreographing, I injected it into my work.

I was still very interested in dancing with a company, and in 2001-two months after I graduated from UNCSA-I became a member of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. I felt at home. Ron’s work wasn’t about body type. The intent and authenticity of your movement was what mattered most. Being in his company proved that having “the ideal” body wasn’t the only way to have a successful career.

I was with the company for five seasons, and during that time, I started creating my own work. Amund 2009, I decided to have a company full time! I never wanted one initially, but after a couple of years of creating commissions for other companies, I desired a more focused and intimate rehearsal process. Eventually, I thought, “Well, Camille, you love musicals and you always try to incorporate some aspect of theatre in your work. Maybe you want to think about the possibility of choreographing for theatre.”