Storytelling is one of the most powerful gifts a person can have. The ability to articulate emotion, incite thought or amuse with illustrative verbiage is quite the expressive tool.
And there’s no one way to it. The elements of telling a story can come through the pen, music, speech, a paint brush and its canvas or the body – sans use of the literal voice.
Camille A. Brown, a dancer and choreographer, found refuge in sharing tales exploring our Black roots and cultural essence through the art of rhythm and motion.
A firm believer in tapping into the core of who you are in order to identify your movement language, the Queens, New York-bred, recently had the opportunity to educate during a TED Talk Studio presentation on Black social dances, which attracted eight million Facebook views.
In her 2016 Bessie Award nominated production Black Girl: Linguistic Play, Brown explores the experience of a Black girl, through a female lens.
“This is not the story of all Black girls but it is a story of a Black girl and its through her lens,”Brown tells Ebony.com via phone. “What does that look like and what are the universal stories that we can pull out from looking at Black girl stories?”
These questions will be topics of discussion as Brown joins Dr. Aimee Meredith Cox for an intimate artist talk series that will offer insights on creative processes and inspirations in music, dance, theatre, visual arts and production, at the Harlem School of the Arts, on November 15.
The presentation marks the launch of HSA’s ART Makers intimate conversation series, which also features various notable and emerging artists who will engage the public and other art patrons about the artistic development process.
Below, we talk to Brown about the power of the human body, historical aspects of storytelling through dance, and what she hopes people gain from Black Girl: Linguistic Play during her return to the Harlem School of the Arts.
EBONY: What have you learned about yourself and the human body during the art of dance and in what ways do you share that with your students?
Camille A. Brown: I think a lot of times when people hear the word dance, they think ‘oh, that’s something that I can’t do.’ But dance really lives in our bodies and the thing that I’ve come to learn, embrace and lift up is that we have history in our bodies that’s living and breathing. We have our own individual history but we also have our heritage. Each one of us has our movement language and it’s about tapping into that and pulling that out. That’s the thing that I try to encourage everybody because it’s not about dance, it’s about the movement and the gesture and how we honor it.
EBONY: How have you seen the historical aspects of storytelling through dance uplift and impact audiences and dancers you work with?
Camille A. Brown: Change is really about the individual. A lot of times when we’re dealing with history, specifically African American history, but also African American tradition around slavery time, they were doing social dances. The thing about it is, we didn’t have YouTube so I couldn’t go and look up documentation on it. But there are people who have been doing a lot of research and writing about it. But it’s also about creative identity. As a choreographer, it gives me a chance to know and understand the history and the African American tradition, but to also use my instinct and creative identity to tap into that language that is the heritage that constantly lives in me. I think that every choreographer that does this kind of work, is going to come out in a different way because we’re all different people.
EBONY: While watching your Black Girl: Linguistic Play production, I loved the various attitudes and moments you brought to the character non-verbally. What are some key messages you hope to share during your conversation at Harlem School of Arts?
Camille A. Brown: Oh, Thank you! I think it’s important for people to understand that dance, movement, choreography is about an experience and entertainment but it’s also about perception and a lens. So when we’re talking about a Black female’s experience through a Black female’s lens, that’s going to be totally different from a Black female’s perspective through a Black male’s lens. I think the thing that I always want to encourage, specifically when people are viewing Black Girl: Linguistic Play is that this is not the story of all Black girls but it is a story of a Black girl and its through her lens. How often are we given that opportunity, especially in the media, to look at those things through another lens and go past those stereotypical roles that sometimes we get attacked by and struggle to fight against? That’s where the nuance comes in and where we can dig deep. So, I’m hoping that it gives me an opportunity to share that but to also listen. I think that it’s also about listening to the community, too. I’m interested in knowing how I impact, or not, the community.
EBONY: What do you think it is about this art form and presentation that draws White culture and what that says about the importance of Black culture?
Camille A. Brown: Black culture is dope! It’s the genius of Black folks. I think cultural appropriation has been an issue since the beginning of time and I think it’s so important for us to tell our own stories and tell them the way we know how they’re supposed to be told but also giving each other the exposure and access in order to do that. So, I think it’s about community building. I wouldn’t be able to seek my voice if it wasn’t for Harlem School of the Arts.
You can never tell in an audience, why they’re there. Even though it’s a majority White audience that are coming based on where we are, some people have no idea. They’ve been honest in telling me, ‘We just thought it was interesting and we went.’ Others made it clear about being interested in this type of work and the culture. But, I do have to say that regardless of where we are and the demographic of the audience, because I call this piece Black Girl: Linguistic Play, there has been a Black girl/women in every audience that we’ve been in and for me, that has been so wonderful. It was important to tell it the way I know how and unfortunately, because of the imbalance of dance education, there are some things in the play that people still don’t consider technical. I knew that going in, because it’s also about educating people too. Some still don’t think Hip-Hop and African dance is a technique. We have so much work to do in the dance community in educating people.
EBONY: It’s great that you have the platform to educate the dance world while also providing entertainment. Overall, how are feeling at this point in your career?
Camille A. Brown: I’ m overwhelmed. I’m excited but I’m scared. With exposure also comes more judgement and opinion so I think now is the time for me to just really solidify a safe space and be around people who are encouraging, supportive, and challenging in a healthy way. With what happened [during the 2016 election], now is the time that we should feel our most brave and most fearless. Now we take it higher. I have never been more excited to show my work in the way I want to and have the position overpower the fear. This should propel us to take it higher.
*ART Makers will take place at the Harlem School of the Arts Gallery located at 645 Saint Nicholas Avenue, New York, NY 10030 on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free to the public! More information, here.
LaToya “Toi” Cross is the Senior Editor/ Entertainment and Culture for EBONY, EBONY.com and JETMag.com. You can catch this laughing creative sharing work, art and capturing life via her iPhone 6 via her handle of @ToizStory on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.