Camille A. Brown dancers take flight at Mass MoCA
NORTH ADAMS — A man and a woman rest their heads together, forehead to temple. Two young men lean shoulder to shoulder, looking up, as though they're finding light in the night sky. In Camille A. Brown's "Ink," they are superheroes set to fly.
Brown is a Bessie Award-winning choreographer with a growing national following and collaborations on Broadway and Off Broadway. And she and her company will perform her newest work at Mass MoCA on Saturday evening at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2, co-presented with the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
"Ink" is the third work in a trilogy, and the Pillow has brought the first two works to the Berkshires, most recently "Black Girl: Linguistic Play" in 2017.
"I felt so liberated by 'Black Girl: Linguistic Play,'" Brown said by phone from New York.
In that work she reached back to a child's open creativity and through the pressures she faced, through friendship and sisterhood and adolescence, and into a playful and resilient womanhood.
"I wanted to expand on that," she said, "on the humanity of black people. What other stories can I lift up?"
And she thought of flying. In "Black Girl," she and the dancers perform on platforms at different heights, she said, and they reminded her of Brooklyn and how it feels when you stand on a rooftop and you can see all the roofs around you, as though you could jump from roof to roof across the city.
She thought of flight as a superpower, and in Ink she taken that idea and lifted off with it.
"What are all of the superpowers that can expand past the capes and the masks?" she asked, and she thought of the ability of black people to fly, to persevere, to go through the storm.
Each dancer or group of dancers here has a superpower of their own. In the duet between the two men, their power is the dap, the friendly greeting, the movements of the handshake.
"The dap acts as a springboard," Brown said. It's a creative identity. When you see kids do it, it's their secret code."
They make it an intimate language and carry it with them as they go from boys to men; it's a ritual. And they carry on together.
"At one point, they are breathing hard," she said, "and a lot of people connect that to Eric Gardner, and that's fine, but actually it's a 'Game of Thrones' reference — when a man wants to be king he is ritually drowned to the point of death, and if he survives he is immortal."
He survives a kind of suffocation, she said. Sometimes living through pressure pushing someone to be a greater person. But it is a weight.
"Being black in America is hard," she said. "Sometimes I am reaching for air."
When she has showed "Ink" as a work-in-progress, many people are shocked that the young men don't turn on each other, but she asks, "why would you think that?"
She sees two men, two friends who have each other's back.
"It's so liberating," she said, "to go into 'Black Girl' and 'Ink,' reclaiming our stories without the need of a mask."
She chose the name "Ink" in that spirit, because ink is indelible.
"It's how we write our history, in our words," she said. "At a talkback last year, one kid asked what the name meant, and another said, `you don't write history in pencil. You write it with a pen, because you don't want it erased.'"
The piece moves from the traditional and spiritual to current and contemporary, she said, or weaves them together.
Percussion leads the music and the sound can flip from hip-hop to Afro-Cuban to Scott Joplin in the 1920s, as her movement vocabulary can encompass hip-hop, social dance, modern and jazz and contemporary elements from different times and places in Africa and across the diaspora, into the Caribbean, across America.
In a section she calls "Milkshake," a woman carries confidence in her own body.
"Her superpower is her derriere," Brown said, laughing.
She is a full-bodied woman and she is proud of her curves.
This section is based on her work in the musical "Bella," she said — as she and her dance company has grown, Brown has also expanded into theater.
In "Milkshake" she is inspired by the story of Sarah Baartman, born to a Khoikhoi family on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Baartman was coerced to join the circus in Europe, displayed at fairs and side shows, and her body was kept in a museum for many years after she died.
"I wanted to take that story and reclaim it and honor that woman's story," Brown said. " We have to get past that insecurity to liberation, to take something shamed and sexualized and say this is me."
In another duet, she said, a man and woman move together, exploring contact imagery and shifts of power and balance. Their roles are interchangeable — their superpower is sharing weight and the ability to rest on each other. She can lift him, as he can lift her.
She builds him up — you can do this and I'll help — and then she takes the weight for him.
"I see her like Harriet Tubman," Brown said. "To go through all that more times than I can count, you have to be a superwoman, to go through that over and over and face death.
"And that's the superpower of black people, to keep going and hold others' weight while you're trying to deal with your own."
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