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.

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“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…

The dance eclectic, the dancing electric part 1:Chicago Dancing Festival places the “Everyday Chicagoan” on a world class stage

There is a continuum…this continuum places within our reach: young people, elders, black, white, mixed, Asian, Latin/Hispanic & all of the above, dynamic & virtuosic, poised & sophisticated beings.  All on the same stage.  A world class stage.  For all to see. And feel deeply what they saw.  And tell others what they love.  How they loved experiencing a reflection of their city expressed through the dance panorama that took place last night as part of the Chicago Dancing Festival.  A reflection of Everyday Chicago articulated by Everyday Chicagoans. The dance eclectic? Yes: hip Africa post modern contemporary release idiosyncratic balletic cha-cha lyrical character defiantly undefinable. The dance electric? Most certainly.  Like static cling, it clung to us.  Hair  raised on arms at times.  Defying gravity.  Residing still within my recesses.

It begins with a Touch of Soul.  Because that is how the evening began.  And what  a beginning…the dancers eclectic, their dancing electric.

One of my foci to blog for the festival, i had the pleasure of meeting with Chicago Dancing Company commissioned choreographer Nicholas Leichter and some of the crew from After School Matters’ Hip Hop Culture Dance Ensemble : Shannon Brown, Dorian Rhea, William Harris and Kaina Castillo.  Prior to the performance, we gather in the dressing room to discuss this communal exchange.   Within a few minutes, i can already sense the communal synergy  between choreographer and dancers.  Though, at times, that distinction was blurred; as Nicholas is quick to admit how these young people threw in their own kinetic thoughts, shapes, moves into the composition.  Throughout their process  he encouraged, insisted that their artistic voice be heard.  Be honored.  Challenged.  And he diligently cultivated it inside the rehearsals and within their “presence”.  Any artist within the performance field knows how difficult it can be to be ‘present’.   To be keenly aware of what’s & who’s around you at all times during a live performance exchange; such that if someone bumps into you or throws you off, the moment is still infused with your crafted spontaneous creativity.  That takes skill. And hearing these young dancers speak about how inspiring it was to have Nicholas as a mentor, a reflection of what they desired to become, you got the feeling his presence only enhanced their luminous presence. Indeed, Nicholas wanted to make his ‘presence’ known in Chicago as well.   He spoke briefly with Lar Lubovitch [one of Chicago Dancing Festival’s Artistic Directors] about the project and heard a little about the After School Matters program, but had yet to truly discover the kinetic possibilities within these Chicagoans.  Then came the first rehearsal…”First day we didn’t know what to expect!” Shannon proclaims, the others immediately concur.  “All the hype” they had heard about him, what they pulled from the internet, didn’t compare to seeing Nicholas preparing in the studio for the initial rehearsal.  “Nic was feeling it!” As they watched him moving to the music, they got more excited.  Even more nervous.  “Before Nic came, i never knew i needed to work on my sassy, fierce, stuff” Kaina professes. “…How to throw myself [into the dance] and be able to whip my hair“.  All with technique and control i might add.  Nicholas succinctly and brilliantly conveys that in his detailed choreographic aesthetic. More than just a ‘hybrid’ the vocabulary defies the boxes it supposedly exists within.  ‘Hip-Hop’ Urban? Even contemporary  doesn’t seem to capture the multi-layered legacies he explores with his company of dancers in Ny; now with his ‘company of dancers’ in Chicago.  To him it’s all about vibing off what’s/who’s in the room that informs the creative impulse inside the compositional landscape.   With two working weeks, he takes them through an exhilarating experience heightening their kinesthetic abilities; utilizing everyone who wanted to be part of this process.  By the end of the process,  he has delivered a potent message to these artists; one that continues to resonate for them.  “A new vision…Nic’s notion of ‘staying out of the box’….to come up with your own labels” (Kaina).  “Recreated…[to be able to just] switch it up” (Shannon)  [While]”After School Matters has given alot of teens a voice, an outlet, a chance to be heard”(Dorian),  Nicholas has offered to them “a new box of crayons… So now [i] can go home and create [my own] picture…” (William)

A Touch of Soul’s (from left) Dorian, Kaina, William & Shannon with choreographer Nicholas Leichter

more to come on A Touch of Soul and Bolero Chicago’s premiere last nite at Chicago Dancing Festival

Living the dance part 2: Multiple Bodies, Multiple Voices…A unifying language

Today they prepare.

Tonite they perform.

Community has formed.

Some have left.

Others still arriving. ..

More exchanges to occur.

Multiple bodies signifying multiple voices unified through moving language.

This evening

We will witness them ‘living the dance’.

…Janet has a solo! From just having one nite’s rehearsal ‘under her belt’ to now proving how wonderfully individualized is the experience of being a community member of  Bolero Chicago,  she gets to have a ‘moment’.  It’s one of  many moments individual Chicagoans will have as part of the process of being a ‘dancer’ for the Chicago Dancing Festival premiere of Larry Keigwin & Company’s inclusive choreography.  Janet will ‘put the button’ on the end of a phrase. The ‘button’ being a jump as fleeting yet signature of her vibrant persona onstage.  She finds it refreshing that “so many [kinds of] people are moving together…A testament that everyone can dance.”

For some of the  Bolero Chicagoans, this has been an extension of their dance lineage.  For others simply pure expression of their love of moving.  Veronica embodies both.  20 years of age, she has been dancing for 15 of them.  It takes an hour & half to travel to rehearsal from Garfield Park, her current residence.  Veronica is nonplussed; focusing on the  intention of each move and how to “hit that beat“.  Her connection to beat, to rhythm, stems from her earlier experiences and love for Jazz dance.  She’s currently involved in Hip-hop but feels equally at home learning how to become a fluid ‘character’ inside Bolero; living the dance as one ‘type’ of Chicagoan inside a shifting urban landscape.  “It’s about natural movement, taking the everyday” [and performing it] with flair.” i see this in the way Veronica ‘hits’ certain moves during last Wednesday’s rehearsal.

i also get to witness others move in ways that suggest their lineage as well.  One Chicagoan, in a striking ‘pas de deux’ with her partner, shows her attention to detail, the lines in her body that have clearly been cultivated by years, if not decades, of training in ballet or contemporary technique.  Another in the choice of footwear and how this dancer places them on; a symbol to anyone in the rehearsal, that she has danced before! Indeed each community member shapes the dance with their individuality, offering up mutable ‘characters’ or interesting personas.  To me, this further suggests not only their quest to find the “character inside the dance” as Veronica puts it, but the ‘character of Chicagoan’.

What signifies the character of Chicago? Its uniqueness? and How will the “everyday Chicagoan” emerge from Bolero?

Tonite, we shall see what Larry, Ashley, Gary,  {Chicagoans}Veronica, Janet, Ira and other community members of Bolero Chicago offer up for ‘answers’….

Bolero Chicago will be part of the exciting lineup for ‘Chicago Dancing’ , 7:00pm at Harris  Theater, part of Chicago Dancing Festival. Featuring local companies alongside national artists; in particular, will  also be blogging about Nicholas Leichter’s Touch of Soul, choreographed in collaboration with After School Matters/Gallery 37 dancers.  below is  a preview of  Touch of Soul dancers in rehearsal.  Hope to see you tonite! 

Living the dance part 1: Bolero Chicago’s community rigorously moves towards its Chicago Dancing Festival premiere

Last week during Bolero Chicago’s first rehearsal at Senn HS, Jerina from the west side, commented that she was “seeing dance in a different way”.  Having come to support her sister and cousin who were inside the process,  Jerina was surprised and impressed by the immediacy of this community of dancers emerging. “Interacting with different people could be awkward [but] they were clicking & hitting it off…There’s just something different…freeing…”

As stated in my previous entry, i too was impressed by this phenomenon.  A phenomenon not by any means foreign to professional dancers, musicians, actors or artists who come together with a common goal: to create a new work, put on a play, develop a new composition or learn & inspire choreography.  The fact that this was  “everyday people” – as dancer/student Jacqueline & witness to this past Wednesday’s rehearsal called them –  hasn’t eclipsed the wonder of instant comradery existing in the folds of this creative process for Bolero.  Nor has it dissuaded the “everyday people [insert Chicagoan]” from inspiring choreographer Larry Keigwin to intricately craft a labyrinth of crosses, steps, phrases and groupings for the exquisite musical composition.  “Larry is like a boy in a candy shop” Jacqueline expresses as we both witness him beaming as he looks upon the community of dancers embrace new moves he throws at them. and yes it’s a throw!  At one point later in the rehearsal he delivers a rapid set of instructions , counts and mutterings that only a dancer would understand… did they get it? i sure didn’t. And yet in one quick release the Chicagoans move through his directions with a certain finesse, as if they were accustomed to him in much the same way his dancers Ashley and Gary have come to experience. Both company dancers are observing the ways Larry interacts with the community dancers and assist, guide and notate the elaborate development of the choreography.

‘Setting dance on pedestrians” is intriguing  to Jacqueline.  She is from Chicago but goes to school at the prestigious  University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  Encountering Larry at Bates dance festival this summer, made her want to witness how this process unfolds.  Unfortunately, Jacqueline cannot be part of the performance because she leaves before Chicago Dancing Festival opens; however more new faces arrive into the space as the rehearsal begins, primed and ready to jump in.  An energetic burst sends people rushing to create a  ‘warm-up’ circle that mutates into a series of lines in order to review some phrases from their previous rehearsal. The “bow” dance flows as ‘End of Time”  is cranked up…the community radiates  warmth yet ‘koolness’ as they transition between steps. It’s clear they are enjoying grooving to Beyonce!

For Janet this is only her 2nd night…She came the night before and is excited to be present and moving. “So fun!” she proclaims… sweating & gleaming through the entire rehearsal. A full time dance teacher for Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Janet doesn’t perform as much as she did before; but when she heard about this project while at the Bates dance festival {yes much like Jacqueline}, she couldn’t resist the allure of Bolero Chicago…

more to come on Bolero & other ‘communal exchanges’ within the Chicago Dancing Festival in part 2 of Living the dance…For those interested in becoming part of this unique community performance, it’s not too late.  Bolero Chicago is looking for more people to be part of this wonderful community of dancers…stop by rehearsal tonite, 6pm,  at Nicholas Senn High School  Gymnasium – 5900 N Glenwood Ave, Door #10 to get involved right away or email Chicago Dancing Festival at info@chicagodancingfestival.com

Bolero Chicago living the dance at Senn HS
photo by Araceli Arroyo

Gateway to dance: exploring possibilities of communal exchange within the Chicago Dancing Festival

Dance has always been part of the vibrant cultural landscape of Chicago & my communal upbringing as a young person living on the south side in the 70’s & 80’s.  Upon returning here after a 20 + year hiatus, i am excited to begin looking more closely at how dance has permeated the everyday culture of this distinguished city.  What are the multiple ways in which dance can be experienced here?    How can Chicagoans explore dance as a communal exchange?   Enter Chicago Dancing Festival:  “From August 20-25, 2012, the Chicago Dancing Festival will present six days of FREE dance programs by artists from Chicago and across the country, to an anticipated audience of 20,000!   [The] mission is to elevate awareness of dance in Chicago and increase accessibility to the art form by presenting a wide variety of excellent dance that will enrich the lives of the people of Chicago, provide aspiration for local and future artists and raise the national and international profile of Chicago, furthering Chicago as a dance destination.”

Oft the most valued exchange in this contemporary society involves money. Communal exchange asks that one is not consumed with the expectation that they get their money’s worth, but look to the possibilities of what is being reciprocated, offered and experienced. With Chicago Dancing Festival providing an exciting array of  events at no charge, this opens up the possibilities that any and every Chicagoan can experience dance in multiple ways; without the money variable.  My particular focus will be on three interactions that highlight compelling dimensions of communal exchange:

Bolero dance Chicago, Larry Keigwin & Dancer’s ultra community collaborative project that includes the ‘everyday Chicagoan’ will be presented as part of the festival’s opening program, “Chicago Dancing” at the Harris Theater, Monday, August 20 & again as part of the Festival’s grand finale program, “Celebration of Dance” at  Pritzker Pavilion on Saturday, August 25.

Bolero Chicago prepares
Bolero Chicago prepares

– Choreographer Nicholas Leichter’s intriguing work with select young dance artists from the Chicago community program, Afterschool Matters, showcases alongside Bolero and other Chicago based companies including Giordano Dance Chicago, opening night of the festival,  Monday August 20th at 7pm.

After School Matters prepares

“Dancing Under the Stars” open community space, where ‘you can dance if you want to’ with a live orchestra’  immersed in the beautiful surroundings of Grant park on Thursday, August 26th at 6pm. Polka!

i would also like to take note  of the “Chicago Now”  discussion on the current state of dance in Chicago, Friday August 24th at 6pm.  Moderated by journalist and former dancer Zac Whittenburg, it features : Lane Alexander(Chicago Human Rhythm Project)Ron De Jesús (Ron De Jesús Dance)Carrie Hanson(The Seldoms) and Julie Nakagawa(DanceWorks Chicago). The program will also include brief performances by The Seldoms, Ron De Jesús Dance and FootworKINGz.  This evening complements the concept of communal exchange by giving essential insight to the artists’ experiences and process in ways, an audience may not get to learn of by just witnessing the work.

In looking at these multiple opportunities to experience the dance through communal exchange,   implicit is the cultivation – even inside just the act of witnessing a performance – of a meaningful relationship. Temporally this may only last an hour or two, but nevertheless both artist and audience participant are left with  lasting impressions. These moments go deeper into other aspects  & possibilities of communal exchange for Chicagoan to experience.

How might one  further define communal exchange?

For the past two decades i have been exploring communal exchange through my performative work with D UNDERBELLY, a network of artists of color from a vast spectrum of experiences.  Within the core of this concept is consideration for  the deepening of a vital relationship that draws upon the aspects of equity in which there are certain expectations to be met,  governed by our responsive energy to each other and cultivation of a shared space for thoughtful interaction.

If one becomes part of a communal exchange there is a illuminating experience where both audience/participant and performer are active and vital. building of a community takes place surrounding a common thread – in this instance dance.  We come to actively witness the process. We may get opportunity to learn ‘hands on’ from the artist the particular aesthetic or tradition;  allowing us to embrace its complexities and feel the flow of its moving force.  even dance the dance.

How might Chicagoans experience this communal exchange?

From now til the end of the festival,  i will be exploring more in depth discussion on what it means to be part of a  communal exchange inside the landscape of Chicago Dance Festival through witnessing & conversing with those involved in  Bolero dance Chicago, Nicholas Leichter & After School Matters, as well as  community members who wish to dance the Polka “Dancing Under the Stars”.

Returning back to my youth experiences on the southside, communal exchange was the gateway to dance for me; getting to witness the community i lived in construct performances, learn dances not from a ‘technique’ point of view, but ‘a-community-gathers-&-just-celebrates-moving-together point of view, dancing on stage to Gloria Esteban/Miami Sound Machine for “Footlites”, be simultaneously embarrassed yet inspired by my mother dancing at church functions and trying my hand at choreographing. It was such an important part of my upbringing, informing my professional inroads into dancing and art.  It allowed me to understand how dance can be part of the ‘everydayness’ of culture.  Chicago Dancing Festival can/may be that for many Chicagoans… A gateway…