By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT
(Ann Arbor, Feb. 7, 2016)
Note: This article is a slightly edited version of the story I wrote for the February 2016 Ann Arbor Observer.
When Camille A. Brown choreographed “Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” she had both personal and political motivations: to “remind myself of the beauty of who I was before the world defined me,” she explained at the show’s premiere run, which I caught at New York’s Joyce Theater in September. The dance is an essay on black girlhood that’s high on joy, spunk, and tenderness.
“I didn’t see anything that reflected my childhood,” she told the Joyce Theater audience. Hence this dance, for herself and five women from her company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers. The company presents “Black Girl” Feb. 13 at Power Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the University Musical Society.
Drawing on the oral and kinetic vocabulary of black-girl childhood games — an early inspiration was a book by ethnomusicologist and U-M alum Kyra Gaunt, “The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop” — Brown’s dance is rich in rhyme, rhythm, and history. It’s about unspoken language and gesture, culture, connection, and self-defined identity. The lexicon is particular; the communication, universal.
A prolific choreographer with numerous awards for her dance and theater work, the thirty-something Brown is also a powerhouse dancer. “My name is Cami, and I am small,” she sang out in an exhilarating game-song episode that elicited audience participation in New York. “But when you see me, you think I’m tall.” That’s precisely the impression the petite, compact Brown makes as she starts the show, reaching up into space as if to summon her past, a soft babble of voices in the background.
Set designer Elizabeth Nelson gives Brown an urban playground for “Black Girl,” with platforms of various heights to dance on, around, and in between. Behind the highest, a blackboard wall rises, chalked with swirls and squiggles, flowers and fireworks. Overhead, mirrors reflect novel views of the dancers’ moves. Pianist Scott Paterson and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth, who composed music for the dance, share the stage. Some movements occur to silence, but they are always so vivid you “hear” as well as see them.
Brown’s opening solo quickly rises in pitch. Braids and feet fly, hips swing, hands fan. She kicks up a chalk storm, her arms the treble to the bass of her sneaker-clad feet. She’s cat light even when driving like mad into the playground macadam.
Brown’s intensity redoubles when Catherine Foster enters for the first of the dance’s several duets. This one is all call-and-response: black-girl games taken to darting, Double Dutch virtuosic heights.
The girls grow up in the succeeding two duets. There’s definitely a teen feeling –rivalry and bonding, preening and pouting — to the next duet, for Fana Fraser and Beatrice Capote. The last duet, for Yusha-Marie Sorzano and Mora-Amina Parker (whose role Brown will assume in Ann Arbor), feels more introspective and almost maternal. And then, dance language having had its say, it’s time for actual talking: a moderated dialogue that’s part of each performance.