Camille A. Brown- photo by Matt Karas
Have you ever found yourself mesmerized by the variety of human life and mood on a subway platform? Camille A. Brown has. This young choreographer came to the attention of the legendary Judith Jamison, then Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with a brief, critically-celebrated work that became The Groove to Nobody's Business. It's easy to see what attracted Jamison: Brown's affectionate portrait of an ordinary day in the life of New Yorkers returned the Ailey dancers to familiar broad-brush character portrayals, where men and women act out longing, fussiness and self-absorption amid the urban sass running under Ray Charles and Brandon McCune's music.
The Groove to Nobody's Business in the Ailey repertory may have been the work that brought Camille A. Brown to public attention, but she's been choreographing almost since she could walk. She remembers making up little dances to morning cartoons as a toddler and putting on shows with her cousins in her grandparents' living room. Early on, she was encouraged at the Bernice Johnson and Carolyn Devore Dance Studios where her teachers scoffed at the idea – conventional, but patently absurd --that she didn't have a "dancer's body."
When she entered LaGuardia H.S. of the Performing Arts – the high school that inspired Fame --Brown had to decide whether to major in dance or clarinet, and dance won out. Her first job after receiving her B.F.A. in Dance from The University of North Carolina School of the Arts was as a member of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company where she performed for six seasons. (Camille and Ronald K. Brown are not related.)
She was concentrating on her life as a dancer, "focusing on interpreting Ron's movement to the best of my ability" when a college classmate sent her a flier announcing that Hubbard Street II of Chicago was hosting a national choreographic competition. Moved by the friend's belief in her, she sent in a tape of the only choreography she had on hand – her senior composition. To her surprise, she was named one of three winners.
Brown now remembers that in college she had gotten used to a composition process that would begin with creating work in the studio, getting feedback from teachers and classmates, then another showing and another chance to polish the choreography. She admits she was in "choreographic shock" when she arrived in Chicago for Hubbard Street II rehearsals and realized she was expected to work for five days and have the new commission ready for performance.
Discipline saw her through. Since that dive into the deep end, Brown has created work for a number of noted dance companies including Urban Bush Women, Philadanco and Ballet Memphis and has received a series of awards and grants including The Princess Grace Award for Choreography, where she was the first woman to be so honored.
For her company's Maine debut, Camille A. Brown & Dancers will be dancing The Groove to Nobody's Business, The Evolution of a Secured Feminine and Girls Verse. In addition, tonight's program includes two very personal works: City of Rain and New Second Line.
City of Rain is an elegy of sorts. It was choreographed in memory of a dancer friend, Gregory Lamont Boomer "Blyes," who died in 2009 after a debilitating disease that left him paralyzed. One of her few truly abstract works to date, Brown's choreography reinforces the additive quality of Jonathan Melville Pratt's minimalist score.
But Brown, who often testifies about the importance of faith and spirituality in her life, dwells in celebration. New Second Line may have been inspired by Hurricane Katrina, but the choreographer's focus is on the resilience of the survivors whose easy exuberance is conveyed in skips and leaps as free as the waving handkerchief in a dancer's hand. Set against informal photographs of musicians parading in traditional New Orleans "second line" brass bands, Brown draws a portrait of a community that can rely on its indomitable spirit.
Every time the dancers present it, New Second Line is dedicated to someone the dancers know who has passed away during the previous year. It's one of the many ways Camille A. Brown expresses her artistry. Dance that honors the living and memorializes departed loved ones is always a form of service.
© 2011 Debra Cashoductions and BBC TV, 1995.