The third work in her trilogy on black identity, Camille A. Brown’s ink (2017) follows in the dance steps of previous works Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), about minstrelsy and BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (2015), about Black womanhood. The hourlong dance-theater piece will be performed by Brown’s New York-based Camille A. Brown & Dancers, March 9 and 10 at Downtown’s August Wilson Cultural Center.
Brown, whose career has skyrocketed recently serving as choreographer for the Emmy Award-winning television special, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert and The Tony Award-winning revival of Once On This Island on Broadway, is also a four-time Princess Grace award winner and a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.
She describes ink as celebrating “the rituals, gestural vocabulary and traditions that remain ingrained within the lineage of the African Diaspora and reclaims African-American narratives by showcasing their authenticity. The work examines the culture of black life that is often appropriated, rewritten or silenced.” She also sees the six characters in the work (including herself) as superheroes and its seven sections as representing the super powers of spirituality, history, heritage and more.
Another of those six superheroes performing the work in Pittsburgh is second-year company member Maleek Washington. The 31-year-old, nicknamed “Baby Shark” by his fellow dancers presumably for his dancing prowess, says in performing the work, “I feel like I can do anything. I don’t think she [Brown] knows this, but before I joined the company I was in a really low place and I didn’t think I was going to dance anymore. She [Brown] has reinvigorated my idea of what is possible for me and I feel like Superman.”
Washington, by phone from an Arizona airport where his flight was delayed because of a freak blizzard, says of ink and the trilogy, “I don’t think she [Brown] knew that the trilogy was happening when she first created Mr. TOL E. RAncE but thematically the three works came together beautifully. They go from the past and the pain of minstrelsy in Mr. TOL E. RAncE to the present in BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play and into the future with ink.”
There is also a consistent movement language weaved into every piece according to Washington. That being said, each work has a different feel to it. “In Mr. TOL E. RAncE I feel as if having been shot out of a canon with the rhythm and speed of it. With ink there is so much joy and expression and the idea of the community is solidified.”
Set to an original score that Washington characterizes as a full-on playlist of black culture from djembe rhythms to hip hop, ink features a quintet of musicians playing live that will join the dancers onstage including Buffalo-native, violinist Juliette Jones.
Jones says Brown relayed to her and the other composers/musicians working on the score that she was influenced by two albums growing up; Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and “Like Water for Chocolate” by Common whose “raw authenticity and vulnerability” she wanted to bring them into the ink’s score. To capture those intentions in her own playing Jones says, “I try to figure out what is going to pull the best sound out of the instrument (a 1929 violin played with a 1795 baroque bow) for what we are doing.” She will also be creating some of the score live.
“I am literally improvising for 10-minutes every performance trying to pull as much sound as I can from the instrument and evoke a level of spirituality in that moment in the work and in response to what the dancers are doing.”
Also, included in the music making is the use of found and handmade instruments including buckets, jugs, shakers, coffee cans and wine bottles that Jones and the other musicians will play.
Sadly, says Brown, David L. Arsenault’s full set design for ink will not be used in Pittsburgh. But despite that, the work’s powerful message on Black Life is certain to ring through.