Camille Brown: The Past is Present
Camille Brown is known for integrating African American social dance traditions into uniquely modern choreography.
Camille Brown is an award-winning choreographer known for integrating African American social dance traditions into contemporary dance. Her accolades include a Tony nomination, Guggenheim Fellowship, Obie Award, and Bessie Award.
Raised in Queens, NY, Brown attended the well-known Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (subject of the film, TV show, and musical Fame) and the University of North Carolina. She danced for innovative choreographer Ronald K. Brown before founding her own company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, in 2006. Brown’s trilogy on race culture and identity—Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), BLACK GIRL (2015), and ink (2017)—won critical acclaim on tours across the United States and earned her a 2013 Bessie Award and a nomination for the same prize in 2016.
Brown also choreographs for theater and opera. She received a Tony nomination in 2019 for her work on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and a Obie in 2020 for choreographing a revival of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.
The award-winning choreographer and dancer, Camille Brown, has spent decades exploring African-American social dance traditions. Her TED talk on the subject has been viewed more than a million times. And Brown believes her gift for dance has been passed down through generations.
Camille Brown: Sometimes fighting against oppression is not necessarily using your words. It’s also using your body too. Movement has always been a part of the African tradition. So, when you look at the Middle Passage and how the culture of the African people, they attempted to strip them of their culture, but somehow it was still living in their body and we call that a blood memory. That idea of movement being a way of expressing ourselves is something that is traditional and it’s a heritage that continues to be passed down. It’s just something that is innate, in black people specifically. So, you’re tapping into something when you’re moving your body that I believe is very spiritual.
Brown believes in doing thorough research to inform her projects. Take the dances she created for the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Once on this Island, the show exploring multiple Caribbean cultures.
Brown: It gave me an opportunity to tap into West African, Afro-Haitian, and Afro-Cuban, and I worked with Maxine Montilus, who is an Afro-Haitian, Afro-Cuban consultant, and I have had African dance training, but I just wanted to kind of immerse myself even deeper into this because I found that it was a tremendous responsibility and we were in rehearsal and while we were doing the session, I stopped her, I said okay, “When you come to the show, you’re not necessarily going to see these exact steps because it’s not about us cutting and pasting, it’s about me knowing and understanding the origin” so then I can apply my choreographic voice to that and riff on it. You have to do the work in order to honor the culture and I am really committed to doing the work but also honoring my choreographic voice.
Brown founded her own company in 2006. Camille A. Brown and Dancers is the outlet for her most personal creative expressions. Some of its best-known work, a trilogy about identity that began in 2012 with Mr. Tol E. rANCe uses film and spoken dialogue to explore black stereotypes throughout entertainment history. Then came 2015’s black girl: linguistic play, a meditation of Brown’s own childhood growing up in Queens. And in 2017, the acclaimed conclusion, Ink, a celebration. But for as purposeful, powerful and self-assured as her work appears, Camille Brown is constantly questioning herself.
Brown: I feel like I am the most fearful, doubtful person that I know. I’m always questioning something I’m doing. I’m second-guessing. I’m terrified every time I walk in to a room for the first time, terrified. I don’t know if I’m gonna, like oh no, I’m the wrong person. They’re gonna find out I’m a fraud, oh no, I’m not gonna know, and what I’ve learned is that it’s okay to not always know what you’re doing. I think there’s a beauty in not knowing because once you open yourself up and give yourself a break, then I think that’s when you actually start discovering things and that’s the beauty for me about choreography. It’s the challenging thing, it’s scary, it’s stressful, but there’s also beauty in finding something and I think part of that is just letting yourself go and let yourself be in the moment.