For a young Camille A. Brown, choreographing dance presented an opportunity to create a new way of speaking.
“Movement was always a way for me to express myself and to communicate to other people how I was feeling,” said Brown during a recent interview for the new ALL ARTS digital series “And the Tony Nominees Are…”
Brown is currently nominated for a Tony Award for “Best Choreography,” placing her work for “Choir Boy” in contest with that of David Neumann (“Hadestown”), Warren Carlyle (“Kiss Me, Kate”), Denis Jones (“Tootsie”) and Sergio Trujillo (“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”).
The choreographer, a recipient of a wide-range of prizes (including four Princess Grace Awards, a Bessie, top-tier fellowships and more), creates movement that weaves together tap and African American social dance with everyday gestures. In “Choir Boy” specifically, Brown has received praise for how her choreography spins through the storyline in such a way that not only illustrates key plot moments, but also expands the emotional depth of the play’s characters.
Brown sat down with “And the Tony Nominees Are…” to share insights into the history behind her movement, her path to becoming a professional choreographer and what it means to be nominated.
Read the transcript from that discussion below, and check back for more episodes with Daniel Kluger, Gideon Glick, Laurie Metcalf and more as ALL ARTS counts down to the Tonys.
Camille A. Brown:
The largeness came as a dancer. You know, people say that I am a completely different person on stage, but it’s because it’s my safe space. The vastness of space — I want to take it up on stage, and I believed that I can. I believe that all things are possible. When I’m on stage, I can do anything. I can be anything. And that’s not something that I necessarily felt comfortable doing when I was growing up.
I have a small voice; I’ve always had a small voice. So, I mean, 20 years ago it was even higher than it is now. And I didn’t really talk a lot because I was always teased, so I felt very insecure. Movement was always a way for me to express myself and to communicate to other people how I was feeling.
I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always liked putting things together, putting shows together for my family. We had family gatherings, and then I would tell them, “At 8:00 o’clock, we’re going to have a show!” That was probably torture for them. So I always loved to do that; I just didn’t know it was choreography.
My mom loves dance. It was something that she always loved. She’s a retired social worker, but she was actually the one that introduced me to musicals: “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Damn Yankees,” “Chorus Line,” “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.” So, it’s because of her that I’m here.
I definitely loved it, I just didn’t know if it was a profession. In school, you’re taught: teacher, lawyer, doctor. I went to LaGuardia High School and the Ailey School. From high school to college, I felt like there was going to be something new, a new experience. I had been struggling with body issues and weight, and I felt like, “OK, well, this is a new atmosphere, a new state; that’s not going to follow me.” And it totally did. It was heartbreaking, and I wanted to transfer immediately. And I told my mom, and she said, “OK, well, you just got there, so let’s finish out the semester, and then have a conversation about transferring. But in the meantime, you have to find something that you love, that you can stay focused on.”
Trish Casey, who was my first teacher at UNCSA, she was actually asking us, “What do you think about moving, and what is your personality?” And I had never thought of it like that.
I didn’t necessarily know then that I wanted to be a choreographer because I just thought, “OK, this is something to keep me.” And, I mean, I graduated. And there weren’t a lot of representations of Black women, Black female choreographers. I knew Marlies Yearby and Dianne McIntyre and Katherine Dunham, but I had to do the work to see them.
“Choir Boy,” specifically, the movements that are in the show are rooted in Juba dance, which is an African-American social dance that started during slavery. The enslaved Africans were not allowed to have instruments on a lot of the plantations because there was fear that they would be communicating to each other through those signals. The enslaved Africans used their bodies to make sounds and that your body is an instrument as well. So, they used that to communicate.
Also, step, which is an African-American social dance, which is also connected to Juba. And I was also thinking about South African gumboot dance. And it’s the miners, who were wearing boots. And they weren’t allowed to speak to each other during their work, so in order to communicate, in order to keep the rhythm, they would start making noise — very much like Juba dance.
You are doing something that is culturally specific in front of people who may not necessarily understand. Are you going to water it down or are you going to tell it like it is?
Trip Cullman, the director, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, they really gave me the space to do that. Because it’s a play, so they could said, “Well, this is a play. They don’t dance. What are you doing?” But they didn’t.
I never thought I would be here.
As a Black woman — the last Black woman nominated in this category was Marlies Yearby for “Rent” in 1996. So it’s been 23 years. That means a lot. It means that I have an opportunity to thank Marlies and Dianne and Katherine Dunham, who paved the way for me and other Black female choreographers. But also I hope that this gives me a platform where a young Black girl like myself looks and sees a reflection of herself and goes, “Oh, I can choreograph too. I can make my own dances. I may be getting teased, but I can create my own voice.” So that’s what it means. I mean, it means a lot of things, but I just think about those.
This interview has been lightly edited from its video format.
Top Image: Camille A. Brown in "And the Tony Nominees Are..."