As an Emerson Collective Fellow (2020), renowned dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown created a virtual school, Social Dance for Social Change. With the pandemic prohibiting gathering in person, she gave over her Instagram page to the school, with members of her company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, offering free lessons including “Dances: Then and Now,” and “Afro Cuban Fusion,” as well as different artists and academics giving free lectures with titles like “Reclaiming the Narrative of Tap Dance,” and “Rhythm is Our Method.”
She has said social dances that she learned from family and friends growing up, such as the Electric Slide and Running Man, created community and freedom and they make up a big component of her work. She thinks the name she chose for her virtual school tells you why it’s important.
“It’s social and it’s dance,” she said on the phone from New York. “It gives us an opportunity to connect. With the pandemic, it means even more to have connection in any way we can. We may speak different languages, but we can find community through dance and movement.”
Brown, whose New York company is coming to San José’s Hammer Theatre Center Feb. 4 and 5, has had her work on all kinds of stages. Recently, she choreographed and co-directed with composer Terence Blanchard, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera based on The New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s memoir about growing up in a small Louisiana town and overcoming trauma.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones marked the Met’s first performance after its longest closure since it was founded in 1883. Great Performances will air the opera on Friday, April 1 on PBS as part of Great Performances at the Met.
The artist says she enjoyed bringing her expertise and experience to the opera. “I loved the idea of showing the range between contemporary dance and step dance, and I was excited to showcase both,” she said. “It was also exciting to me supporting Terence as the first black composer at the Met and lifting his voice telling the story of Charles Blow.”
Brown, who has received a slew of honors including a Guggenheim Award, a Bessie Award, a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, and a New York City Center Award, has been involved with a breathtaking range of projects from choreographing Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude; NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert; Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play with music, Choir Boy, (for which she received a Tony nomination); and the 2020 Netflix movie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This spring, she’s scheduled to direct as well as choreograph for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf on Broadway, making her the first Black woman to direct and choreograph on Broadway since Katherine Dunham did so 65 years ago.
The choreographer wants to continue working with all kinds of stories in a wide range of media.
“I don’t like putting myself in a box,” she said. “I’m drawn to all kinds of projects and stories that I have a personal connection to and that can be anything that’s in some way important to me.”
Embracing every opportunity she gets, she’s is delighted to work in the theater.
“Theater has always been a part of my life,” she said. “My mom introduced me to musical theater when I was a kid. Being able to work inside that world of theater and dance is a challenge — I’m doing two careers, but I’ve definitely grown so much as an artist.”
Brown grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and went to the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, right behind the Metropolitan Opera House, where Fire Shut Up in My Bones was performed. She says she didn’t really consider becoming a choreographer while she was there.
“I mean, I always wanted to put together dancers and movement,” she said. “But choreography wasn’t something I thought I could really do till after college.”
She started Camille A. Brown & Dancers in 2006. She said that came out of her desire to work more with dancers. But it took a while.
“At the root of it I didn’t want to have a company,” she said. “I think I was working out of fear that I didn’t know my voice, but I started creating works for other companies, and I wanted a more intensive experience with dancers.”
The executive director of the Hammer Theatre, Christopher Burrill, looks forward to the company’s performances at the theater (they will offer streaming options as well).
“She brings a special vocabulary and a style of dance I personally find exciting,” he said. Burrill says he’s also thrilled that a group of San José State dance students will perform at the show after a donor provided the money for one of Brown’s dancers to come out and work with them.
At the Hammer, the company will perform some of its repertory, Brown says, including ink, which according to the company’s website “examines the culture of Black life that is often appropriated, rewritten, or silenced,” and Mr. TOL E. RAncE, which “speaks to the issue of tolerance — how much Black performers had to tolerate, and addresses forms of modern-day minstrelsy we tolerate today.”
This will be the company’s first performance since the pandemic started and the first for the company at the Hammer.
“We have some new dancers, and that’s exciting to introduce them and share how wonderful they are,” Brown said. “And it’s exciting for them to have a live audience and what that means after a couple years of isolation and uncertainty. I always like to experience that as well.”