Camille A. Brown
Camille A. Brown in “Black Girl: Linguistic Play.” Photograph by Steve Gunther

Social Dance

Camille A. Brown's “Black Girl: Linguistic Play”

Camille A. Brown & Dancers: “Black Girl: Linguistic Play”
REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Los Angeles, California, December 3-6, 2015
Victoria Looseleaf

Small but mighty is an apt description for the spitfire dancer/choreographer, Camille A. Brown, whose latest work made its West Coast debut last weekend in the City of Angels. (The piece, currently on a 10-city tour, bowed in September at New York’s Joyce Theater to kick off that venue’s fall season.) Drawing upon childhood games, nursery rhymes and call-and-response chants, as well as being inspired by Kyra D. Gaunt’s book, The Games Black Girls Play, Brown, who also directed the cast of six women, explores black female identity and empowerment.

But this is a playful and joyous romp, without the anger, say, that might be found in a Spike Lee film, including his most recent, Chi-Raq, although, instead of fists, there were raised arms with splayed fingers sprinkled throughout the 55-minute work. Brown, a stunner when she danced with Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, and who also guested with Rennie Harris Puremovement, is still an explosive presence at 35, one that infuses her vocabulary with boundless enthusiasm, finesse and heart.

Having founded her New York-based troupe a decade ago, Brown has snagged a slew of awards, including a Bessie for her “Mr. Tol E. Rance” (2013), an examination of black stereotypes in entertainment, as well as receiving a 2015 Doris Duke Artist Award. Opening the work with a hip-shimmying, knock-kneed, sneaker-stomping solo (all the dancers sported the rubber-soled shoes), Brown tapped up a storm, conjuring a head-held-high Savion Glover, before being joined by Catherine (Cat) Foster.

Their duet included a spate of complex steps inspired by juba (a precursor of tap developed by slaves), dollops of hopscotching, nae-naeing and running in place, with the “Jig-a-low” cheer upping the impish ante. This is dance teeming with rhythm and jive, all set to an original score by pianist Scott Patterson and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth—performed live. (Some of Patterson’s piano noodlings, however, were too syrupy and overly arpeggiated—think Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”—while Wormworth provided funk, grit and soul to the otherwise mostly prosaic score.)

The opus is, in fact, three well-crafted and beautifully executed duets. Essentially a coming-of-age piece, it probes different layers of identity that look at issues facing young black girls and women through friendships and emerging sexuality. The duos represent older women, antic-prone teenagers, and a pair of very young girls whose dance stems, in part, from the rhythms of Double Dutch jump rope.

Who knew such stuff could make for a great evening of dance—one in which the viewer need not be black, female or even sociologically-minded to reap rewards. Indeed the sheer onstage exuberance was life affirming to the point of being contagious. Burke Wilmore’s superb lighting design added to the work’s likeability, as did Elizabeth C. Nelson’s set design of mirrors and a multilevel stage of various sized platforms.

This array of performance areas proved ideal for showcasing the fine footwork (not to mention the metaphorical aspect of putting black girls on pedestals), with a vibrantly colored, graffiti-like chalk mural—drawn by the cast and recalling playgrounds old and new—serving the dancers well.

The second duo, Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser, offered the good-natured kind of rivalry often found on a playground, with feuding followed by forgiveness, all part of Brown’s quest to give black girls more exposure and to not be caricatured, or as Brown said in the post-performance talk-back (more on that later), to not be seen as “one-dimensional subjects of misfortune.”

On the contrary, watching BFFs Capote and Fraser, a positivity permeated the air, one on a par with the aura surrounding Shonda Rhimes, recent bestselling author of, The Year of Yes, and superstar creator of TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. This section also featured gloriously loose limbs in synch with a popping ostinato bass, as well as Capote doing the splits in her plaid mini skirt. When seated languidly, albeit for a brief moment, Fraser recalled Nijinsky, sunning himself on a rock, in his deliriously iconic, “Afternoon of a Faun.”

Keeping things in theatrical balance (no fewer than three dramaturges were listed in the program), the final duet featured a quieter take on the estrogen-fueled work. Here were Yusha-Marie Sorzano and Mora-Amina Parker exhibiting a more caring aspect to friendship, the dance ending on a beautiful and thoughtful note.

As mentioned previously, Brown led a Q & A (“The Dialogue”), immediately following the performance, explaining that this, too, was part of the work. Unfortunately, the questions (generally fatuous and often long dissertations veiled as inquiry), broke the magic Brown and crew had just created. The ‘Linguistic’ portion of the title is best left to the performers, not the audience.

That said, Camille A. Brown’s “Black Girl” is an important work—and one seemingly unfathomable if ever performed by males—that deserves attention. Kudos, then, to Brown and her singular, ever evolving voice.

Bangarra Dance Theatre
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