Camille A. Brown reclaims her story at Jacob's Pillow
Three girls are jumping rope on the sidewalk. Their friends are calling out rhymes like the clapping games they teach each other on the school bus — Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack and more are dancing in a circle to a backbeat on someone's iPhone.
Camille A. Brown invokes that sense of warmth and laughter.
It came to her as she was choreographing a moment in a new musical, "Fortress of Solitude," for the Public Theater, she said in a phone interview. In that moment, a man transported back to his childhood sees two black girls skipping Double Dutch. Their feet move with blurring speed to keep time between two ropes at once.
"I thought, I remember this," she said. "I used to do this. And I don't see this."
She wanted to tell a story she has lived and has not often heard. And so she has created a work celebrating what it means to be a girl, a teenager and a woman, with laughter and energy, humor and pain.
Brown is a nationally and internationally award-winning dancer and choreographer, with
her own company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, and credits from Broadway to the Kennedy Center. Last year she won the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award and performed in "And Still You Must Swing" here with international tap artists. On Wednesday, she returns to the dance festival with her company to bring her own work, "BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play," to the Ted Shawn Theatre through Sunday.
She has drawn on her own memories, she said, memories of growing up an only child in Queens, N.Y., imagining by herself, watching cartoons and inventing worlds. Her first- or second-grade teacher once called her mother to say she was daydreaming all the time.
"I remember being in a place of wonderment," she said
As she grew older, that place became harder to keep hold of. Pressures came to bear, insults and unconscious assumptions about who she was and what she could do.
Her work travels through that experience.
"It starts with a girl playing, before the world defined who she was," she said. " How does it feel. What was the moment in time when you didn't know that?"
The performance relives the time when those definitions began to bear down — and moves through dance and music, creativity and friendship, to find that place of wonderment again.
"It takes a long time to get back there," she said. "I've been an adult longer than I was a child. I had to go back to painful times to get back there. It's about growing up and finding that sense of play. As adults we forget to play."
We forget, or we don't realize all that play can mean.
"When I'm talking to my best friend and we're teasing each other, that's play," she said. " Talking to my mom too."
And when she performs with the dancers in her company, they share an energy and understanding and exuberance.
"People think we're improv-ing up here," she said, "because it looks so natural."
They dance together before a blackboard filled with bright chalk drawings, as familiar as hopscotch. And they draw on sounds and rhythms familiar to anyone who has spent time on a playground: clapping games, songs, rhyming, social dances.
A social dance is one a roomful of people can do at a party, like the Electric Slide, Brown said.
"We do social dance every day," she said.
These are dance moves everyone knows, the kind of dance people pick up from celebrities or learn from friends. Social dance has a form, she said, as clearly as jazz or ballet: It has its own structure and ways to communicate and experiment.
It also has a long history, she said, going back to West African dance traditions. People who lived in this country enslaved, on the plantations, danced to communicate with each other. They danced to hold onto who they were. The people who forced them to this country tried to take their dance and music and language from them, but they held on in gestures and memory in the blood.
Many contemporary dance forms have roots here. In Step and Juba, dancers build rhythms with hands and feet, holding complex polyrhythms and percussion with their bodies. Tap dance has evolved from these roots.
So Brown's work blends past and present in the dance and in the music. Pianist Scott Patterson and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth have composed original work for the piece, reaching out to a range of influences, "everything from Radiohead to Diana Ross," Brown said. And the composers will perform live with the dancers.
It's a landscape of movement and sound, Brown says. Being a black girl means many things and her work reaches people powerfully. Black girls in her audiences have come up to talk with her and they have said they have seen themselves in her performance.
"That's a very special gift," Brown said, "and I wanted it to be a gift. It's a narrative we don't see."
It's the story of black girls simply being girls, and she does not see it often enough.
"People are working to lift these narratives up," she said, "but we need more of them. I need more of them. I need to see myself — and to know I have the power to create who I know I am."
She is telling a story of growing up, finding maturity and confidence, a story anyone can relate to.
"We're showing humanity," she said.
It takes courage.
She still has to face unthinking assumptions, she said. Some people respond negatively to the work before they have seen it, when all they know is the name.
"Some people have a hard time with the title," she said. "It can evoke fear."
Some have even told her so directly. One woman said bluntly that she had come only because her daughter wanted to. That kind of immediate dismissal is difficult to hear or to answer, she said.
But she opens herself to each performance. She is coming to a mountaintop for six nights to perform here, to reclaim her own story and dance it with joy.
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