Camille A. Brown & Dancers | Alexandra Pobiedzinski (March 2015)

Camille A. Brown & Dancers
Saturday, March 21, 2015
Zoellner Arts Center

By Alexandra Pobiedzinski

Zoellner Arts Center welcomed a powerful, energetic start to spring with Camille A. Brown & Dancers’ presentation of Mr. TOL E. RAncE, Black Girl: Linguistic Play & New Second Line. The evening consisted of three interdisciplinary works that utilized dance, theatre, music and imagery to explore notions of the black performer with humor, athleticism and thoughtfulness.

The curtain rises to unveil a live pianist with a screen backdrop that displays movie-esque credits featuring iconic black entertainers, setting the tone for a look back in time at pop culture’s depiction of the black role.

Winner of the 2014 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production, Mr. TOL E. RAncE begins with a montage of movie and stage clips reminiscent of minstrel performance, showing black entertainers, some even in the traditional blackface of the genre, along with various black social dances throughout American history. A single dancer enters the stage, moving in slow motion against the high energy backdrop, exhibiting controlled tension in his movements. Five additional dancers then enter the space as the piece shifts to high-energy, big, athletic phrases speckled with gestural movements. The dancers exude enjoyment and fun from their bodies and voices as they support each other through the movement, while the audience witnesses moments of controlled chaos interlaced with quiet thoughtfulness about the underlying subject matter.

The “Scheduled Programming” portion of the piece displays a montage of television shows (and accompanying theme songs) centered around images of black culture and community, from “Amos n’ Andy” to “Living Single” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which immediately brings the piece to a relatable place for the audience as both the performers and viewers burst out in unison into the “Fresh Prince” theme song.

A shift in music and light carry the audience back to a somber place, as a new soloist repeats the movement of her counterpart from the start of the piece, although this time the movements become even more deliberate, sustained and focused as if requiring conscious thought. Two dancers join her in the movement, which is presented differently through each dancer’s body, conveying the individuality of the images as fulfilled by each dancer. The costumes have simplified from the original hats, shoes and suspenders the dancers had been wearing to now focus more on the dancer and less on the character he or she portrays.

The entire piece has an exaggerated quality to the movement mixed with quick precision in its execution and the polyrhythmic quality characteristic of African dance. The technical acuity of the dancers is apparent, although that is not the focus of the choreography. The music is not a soundtrack to the piece but rather an equal theatrical player, exhibited not only by the physical presence of the pianist and his piano onstage but also by the dancers physical orientation and pathways around the piano, acknowledging and enjoying the music and allowing for moments where the musician even performed solo.

Black Girl, a work in progress commissioned by DANCECleveland through a 2014 Joyce Award from the Joyce Foundation, is divided into three solos, separated by self-contained stages within the space and windows of light that distinguish each soloist as independent from the other two. The first solo, performed by Camille A. Brown, begins with her drawing with chalk on her stage area, as if outside on a street or sidewalk. Her movements and costume are bright and playful, characterized by polyrhythms and popular dances in black culture. The second solo, set up mid-upstage, evokes a more rebellious feel, as the dancer slaps the wall and convulses as if the movement and images she is trying to embody do not sit well. The third soloist moves in a more pensive, controlled way, watching her body as she moves and deliberately places it. All three solos have gestural aspects, generating images of beauty and self-image as defined by society versus self in black pop-culture. Following the performance, Camille invites the audience to join her and her dancers in a dialogue about the ideas that come to mind when they hear the term “black girl,” the sense of identity that the three soloists explore and grapple with.

The final work of the evening, New Second Line, departs from the previous two pieces as it feels a complete piece in and of itself rather than a springboard to elicit a conversation regarding black identity. This piece begins as if the dancers are leaving a funeral ceremony – they wear black attire, hold umbrellas and tissues, comfort each other and move solemnly into the space. A transition in both music and movement transforms the solemnity into celebration, lifting the mood and energy of the dancers as they allow themselves to take part in it. The dancers rejoice as in a celebration of life, mixed with somber moments as they experience the sadness of its loss, with an overall reverence exhibited by upward focus and gestures. The sense of group consciousness and support is central as the piece pushes energetically and joyfully through, absorbed in an African sensibility with elements of Afro-contemporary and South African styles in the movement.

Throughout the performance of all three works, Camille invites her audience to partake in a journey that not only lifts the veil of black cultural constructs as they have appeared throughout history to explore the sense of identity underneath those constructs, but also examines the veil itself – its nuances, relevance to the black sense of self and the fulfillment versus rebellion of the images created by that veil. It is deeply intertwined in American society, culture, the past, present and future, evoking what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as the “double consciousness” forever felt by black Americans. Brown creates a dialogue through an interdisciplinary vocabulary that combines dance, music, film and theatre to keep the audience energized and laughing throughout its performance while leaving a poignant sense of thoughtfulness at its completion.