The Necessity of Reflection: A Conversation with National Artist Camille A. Brown Performing at 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

Camille A. Brown.  photo by Grant Halverson
Camille A. Brown. photo by Grant Halverson

“Is art enough?”

Camille A. Brown, one of the national artists performing a solo for Chicago Dancing Festival‘s Solitaire event at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago [MCA], raises this question inside our conversation.  it’s a rhetorical question Camille deeply considers when developing work such as Mr. TOL E. RAncE or “TOL”;  from which she shared an excerpt* on Wednesday and Friday, August 21st and 23rd to varied Chicago audiences. TOL is a large scale dance theatre piece that explores unsettling & provocative legacies of ‘African-Americana’.  with this work, she intentionally engages her audiences in dialogue  that goes beyond just the dance of it…for her it’s about what moves us to action.  “Can it be enough to just create art around Trayvon? we’ve got to take it further.” the cultural implications  of  Trayvon Martin’s tragedy resonate a contemporary reflection of the continued devaluation of brown and black bodies. Inside TOL, Camille fluidly reflects haunting past images of blackness; reminding us of how far we have gone, and where we may need to go, in order to craft authentic intercultural discussions on race, equity and social stereotyping.

with striking pose

a black body flows

she wears the gloves

and dons the gestures

the face that bares

receives the stares

the music plays

a shifting gaze

in this spotlit

she is a reflexive lens

for those who may also wear the mask

referring back to her mention of Trayvon, Camille cautions “we can get caught up in the sensationalism”,  but there is a necessity to go deeper.  she is willing to go deeper.  that “necessity” is a guiding force in her current creative practice. TOL allows her to examine “these masks we wear”  and, in revealing them, invite those who witness into an opportunity for meaningful dialogue.

distinguished Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar eloquently articulates the metaphor of the mask:

“WE wear the mask that grins and lies, 
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— 
    This debt we pay to human guile; 
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, 
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise, 
    In counting all our tears and sighs? 
    Nay, let them only see us, while 
            We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries 
    To thee from tortured souls arise. 
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile 
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile; 
    But let the world dream otherwise, 
            We wear the mask!” 

Wednesday’s performance at MCA was a gala; drawing in a predominately white audience. an attendee comes up to her: “i don’t mean to be offensive but what was it about”.  it’s not the first time a black artist has been asked that by a white audience member.  this person genuinely –  in Camille’s recanting – searches for more than a simple answer; and this becomes one of those “opportunities”.  throughout the evolution of TOL, its development and performances nationally, she has become accustomed to “not always preaching to the choir” . new audiences open up new possibilities for fostering educational and enlightening exchanges between artists and those who bear witness. “There’s a vulnerability that comes with that newness for both audience & artist.  We bring up race, black history and we can shut down. But everyone wears a mask. Mask is universal”  Finding that mask cannot occur from the outside, we must go within.  it’s challenging when we do so…and when artists make choices to do so in front of others.  for Camille and her company of artists, that kind of challenge is not only present when there are majority white attendees; it can been even more challenging when they perform for black audiences.  “they see themselves reflected. it’s not necessarily something they want to see…” she recalls a performance where the audience was so close the dancers could see their faces change when certain images were recognized. the “putting on of the white gloves” recalls past historical moments of minstrel and servitude that Americans still grapple with today.  interestingly in sync, The Butler – Lee Daniel’s film loosely based on true-life story of Eugene Allen‘s tenure serving eight USA presidents – is currently out in theatres nationwide.

“““““““““““““““““`

“A woman like me”

i ask “what does diversity mean to you?” what SHE shares reminds me of comments a female associate made regarding the opening Chicago Dancing Festival concert on Tuesday, August 20th.  inside a male-centered choreographic world, Camille brings a woman’s history…a storyteller not to be pidgeon-holed. this kind of representation inspires me to suggest how exciting it maybe for a young girl to come to this festival and see Camille.  it’s potentially empowering for her – the young girl – to create, to feel affirmed.  Camille shares a story; one of being a young woman, 16 & the first time seeing “a woman like me…with bodies that celebrated full curves, hips…oh and natural hair.” it was a profound personal epiphany. well, while here in Chicago, she went to a class led by members of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, then witnessed their rehearsal  AND THERE SHE SAW HER++  – the SAME woman dancer Camille had seen perform when she was 16!

as a self-identified black female choreographer, this necessity of reflection radiates. as well it permeates: the dance world when “seeing Judith Jamison on stage” ; within the academic institutions system looking at “how we teach people about the history of dance with educators like Brenda Dixon[Gotschild]“; and within the context of black representation – ” president Barack Obama“.

“Glimpses are not enough”, Camille states. she’s right.  we need to embed the legacy of diversity within the academy. “we do that and it will ripple throughout the larger society”

in speaking on the ‘company of Solitaire soloists‘, Camille relishes the convergence of all these diverse bodies & forms: “We are in our own worlds so the performers are having this experience as well, experiencing the diversity of who’s in the room…the pleasure of getting outside our separate dance worlds…seeing the men of Hubbard Street, connecting to the east Indian dancer’s footwork & rhythm… the ‘arch’ of how this all fits in…how we compliment each other inside the Solitaire performances…connecting to the sameness, celebrating the difference”  i sense her joy and enjoy her vibrant enthusiasm. it is a perfect testament to her enterprising character. “i can sit here all day and talk about diversity”  indeed. the more ways we can explore diversity…the many many more expansive conversations unfolding…

——————

*the excerpt Camille presented at the festival, was a solo that is performed at the very end of the full length TOL.

++the “HER” who inspired Camille at 16 is the lovely Elana Anderson.

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Camille A. Brown performed a solo from MR. TOL E. RAncE for 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival’s Solitaire performances on Wednesday and Friday, August 21st and 23rd at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago .

more to come on the actual Solitaire performance…

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Author: Barak adé Soleil

creative practitioner, independent consultant and curator. making dance, performance art and theatre. working within community.

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