“Camille A. Brown has made a name for herself as a star choreographer in the dance world, receiving accolades notably but not limited to the Princess Grace Award, TED Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, USA Jay Franke & David Herro Fellowship and a Bessie Award. She’s graced the covers of dance magazines and performed at multiple TED conferences, choreographed for Broadway and television with John Legend’s Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. But to speak to Brown, you’d never know it. It’s clear that the work itself is the prize she values most, as the soft-spoken Brown lights up with delight when discussing past and future projects.
Her journey was not one of overnight success but one of perseverance and learning that channeling her most personal anxieties and the stories that she found fascinating would open the most doors. Thinking outside of the box of only being a dancer allowed her to embrace all of who she is and Brown continues to expand her talents, pressing up against the confines of the male-dominated world of choreography as a black woman. Currently, Brown’s dance company Camille A. Brown & Dancers is touring the country, stopping at The Joyce Theatre in New York City in early February. Her choreographic work on the acclaimed show Choir Boy written by the Oscar-winning Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin is playing on Broadway. I spoke with Brown about her journey, her training and what advice she’d give to young women who want to succeed in this field.
Risa Sarachan: Owning your own dance company and achieving the level of commercial success you have is a dream so many strive to achieve. How did this journey begin, where did you train, what kind of access to training and dance classes did you have?
Camille A. Brown: I’m originally from Jamaica Queens, New York, born and raised here. I’m really proud of that. I went to Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Jamaica Queens. One of my teachers there, Carolyn DeVore, asked to open up her own school in 1991, so I went over to study with her. I was 11 years old at the time. I was there, and then I went to LaGuardia High School. I started going to The Ailey School during my junior year of high school. From there I went to college at North Carolina School of the Arts. It’s interesting because I’ve always loved dancing and moving in space. My mom loved musicals and to this day we still talk about all the musicals we love and want to see. She’s the one who introduced me to musical theatre. I had gone the concert dance route, and within that time I had a lot of struggles with my body image. I had all kinds of teachers. I had teachers who were and still are my mentors, and I had teachers who were so set on a certain ideal, particularly the ballet teachers. So I had a lot of issues with body image. I struggled a lot with that. I thought college would erase all those struggles and it definitely didn’t. My first 2 years I wasn’t even called to audition for a lot of choreographers because of my body type, which was very disheartening. My freshman year I called my mom and told her I wanted to transfer. She told me we could talk about transferring when the end of the semester rolled around, but for the time being, I needed to find something I loved. Before she said that, composition and improv weren’t things I was into. I didn’t understand them because I’d always been in the position where the choreographer shows you the steps and you do the steps. My composition teacher was asking us to create movement based on our own choices. I didn’t get that, but I started to gravitate towards that. All of my anxiety and energy I put into creating my own dances. Junior year things started changing, and I was eventually able to work with all these great choreographers which was wonderful because it was what I wanted. At the same time I also discovered this love for choreography. So I was able to stay at school and once I was able to find my way I loved my time there. Students would always say which company and choreographer they wanted to dance with and I never really knew. It wasn’t until I saw Ronald K. Brown‘s Graced with The Evidence Company that I thought, “I want to work with whoever put that together, that’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” The wonderful thing about it is that after I graduated, I only went to one audition for The Lion King. I was standing in a line wrapped around the building. One of Ron’s dancers walked by and told me Ron was looking for a woman for his company. He recommended I take one of Ron’s classes at Peri Dance. So I left the Lion King line, which ended up being for singers, not dancers, so it’s good I got out of that line since I can’t sing! That would have been a mess. I went to Ron’s classes and within the week he had invited me to rehearsals with the company and then soon after that he invited me into the company. Within that first year, I was just focused on being a dancer with Evidence. My friend Amy Page, she’s actually the costume supervisor for Hamilton right now, sent me a letter about the Hubbard Street 2 Competition and I hadn’t choreographed in a while but I submitted and got into the competition. That’s what started the snowball of me choreographing….” Click here to continue reading.
Article courtesy of Forbes and written by Risa Sarachan. Photo by Whitney Browne.