Camille A. Brown & Dancers

Choreographer Camille A. Brown asks: ‘What is so uncomfortable about a black girl playing?’

White Bird brings Camille A. Brown & Dancers to town for some playground games—and some sharing of black culture

In the Q&A after the opening night performance of “Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” Camille A. Brown was asked whether she thought it was easier or harder to engage racial issues in her performances in the “current political climate,” a phrase which sent a distressed chuckle through the audience.

She joked that when the title was just “Black Girl,” she assumed she wouldn’t have a tour. She imagined a genteel couple picking what they wanted to do on a Friday night and shying away from the performance called “Black Girl.” Who wants to think about that on your night out? “We live in a post-racial world, anyway,” Brown quipped, to another uneasy chuckle. To answer the original question, Brown asked another, simple question. What, exactly, is so uncomfortable about a black girl playing?

She’s made my job as a reviewer rather easy, in fact, by naming her show after exactly what it is about: the language behind some of the ways that black girls play. The thesis of this show is that there is legitimate language of movement that has been passed down through a rich cultural history that can be found in traditional schoolyard and side-street games played by girls, frequently black girls. Further: That’s worth watching, and it deserves more space.

Camille A. Brown and Catherine Foster in "Black Girl: Linguistic Play"/Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy White Bird

Camille A. Brown and Catherine Foster in “Black Girl: Linguistic Play”/Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy White Bird

If you have a sideways, gut feeling that the show will be “racially charged” or “confrontational,” I can tell you that it will only feel that way if you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving this particular form of dance a stage and engaging with it from the perspective of contemporary dance. PICA’s TBA Festival has brought performers from around the world who have done the same thing with the folk dances that informed their upbringing—Brown’s just doing it with a folk tradition that thrives in our playgrounds and city streets.


DanceWatch Weekly: The big companies take over

White Bird's Camille A. Brown concert, OBT's "Giants" and Northwest Dance Project's "Bolero" lead the way this weekend

Last night, two very strong programs opened in Portland: Bolero, by NW Dance Project, which includes world premieres by the company’s resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem, Lucas Crandall and Felix Landerer; and “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” by award-winning, New York choreographer Camille A. Brown at White Bird. This weekend is also the second run of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s program Giants which features choreography by George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Nicolo Fonte. It’s a powerhouse weekend and you still have a chance to see them all before the programs conclude (on Sunday for Giants and Saturday for NWDP and Camille A. Brown & Dancers).

NW Dance Project is joined this season by three new dancers—Tatiana Barber, William Couture and Charbel Rohayem, all three 2016 graduates of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet BFA at Dominican University of California in San Francisco and beautiful dancers to boot.

I caught up very briefly this week with NW Dance Project choreographers Rustem, Crandall and Landerer and spoke with each of them about their dances and what it takes to make them. The program, formerly known as New/Now/Wow, is titled Bolero but contains three pieces; Bolero by Rustem, Salt by Crandall and POST-TRAUMATIC-MONSTER by Landerer. I spoke with Rustem and Crandall in person in between rehearsals, and Landerer and I communicated via email.

NW Dance Project,studio rehearsals,"Carmina Burana"

NW Dance Project, studio rehearsals for Bolero. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.


London-born Ihsan Rustem trained at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance and went on to dance with Matthew Bourne’s Adventures in Motion Pictures, Ballett Theater Munich (Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz) and Introdans in The Netherlands, became a founding member of the State Theater Bern Ballet and the Tanz Luzerner Theater, before joining NW Dance Project as resident choreographer in 2015.

How did this Bolero thing start?

I’ve wanted to do Bolero for 15 years. The first professional thing I ever did, really, (I was a guest, but it was still a big gig I guess) was with Bejart Ballet Lausanne at Sadler’s Wells during Bejart’s Bolero with Sylvie Guillem. I was like 16 or 17; I was a kiddie. I don’t know if you know the piece, but it’s a big table, and Sylvie or whoever is doing it that day, does a 15-minute solo on the table, and there are 40 guys basically as the corps. So wherever they go, they always hire an extra 15. And that I will never forget; the music is phenomenal; I get goose bumps still now. I can’t hear this music anymore, but… I still get goosebumps (laughing). I think that says a lot. I think it is one of the most amazing pieces of music ever written for dance. It was commissioned for a dance at the Paris Opera in 1928.

It still gives me goosebumps today. But…it’s challenging. People think I’m nuts sometimes, because the music repeats itself. It has two phrases and they each repeat nine times. It’s how do you take that and create a through-line which builds up in the way that I feel. I’ve said from the beginning, it feels like a 15 minute orgasm, and it still does. Even after hearing it a million times. Because it is, it starts very subtle, but by the end the climax really is one. And I like that, I think it’s fabulous.

It’s a piece of music I’ve wanted to use for years and now felt like the right time. It’s the fifth creation for the company and I think there is also an element of trying to do something that I haven’t done before here.

What are elements or ideas that you are working with in the choreography and how is this piece different from your previous works?

I think it’s quirkier. There are elements of quirky things. In my earlier works here, people cried, and then we sort of went on to the meatier works, like the third one Yidam; it’s just more powerful, raw, emotion, driven, that music drives it.

I feel like I’ve evolved from very sensitive subtle work like State of Matter at the beginning. Mother Tongue was an evolution of that, and Yidam was a powerhouse, a much tougher meatier work. And then for the fourth creation we wanted to do something completely different, and Sarah had been wanting me to do something that was maybe funny or had elements of comedy. So we decided to do Le Fil Rouge, which used old songs. We had everything from Doris Day to Creep.

This one is already an evolution in terms of musical choices. It’s shorter, it’s a whole company work, and it’s quirkier than other works. And it’s based on love, desire, loss, attachment, hate, passion. So I’m using that but in quite random bursts throughout the piece as opposed to a narrative. It’s certainly not a narrative. But each of the duets have their own narrative and that pops out, and the music is passionate. It feeds me elements of relationships and every angle of that. The rose is a representation—and quite an obvious representation—of what that is, in its own abstract form.


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