Camille A. Brown choreographs Met Opera’s ‘Porgy & Bess’

Zita Allen | 9/19/2019, 2:05 p.m.
Standing in front of a large studio filled with some 90 singers and dancers, is a young, diminutive Black woman ...
A scene from the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Ken Howard / Met Opera photos

Standing in front of a large studio filled with some 90 singers and dancers, is a young, diminutive Black woman whose profile is reminiscent of a regal African sculpture thanks to a head wrap that forms a bun atop her head, large silver hoops dangling from her ears, a prominent brow that slopes toward tortoise shell eye glasses framing eyes intensely focused on the rehearsal of one of the show-stopping numbers she, Camille A. Brown, has created for the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess.”

It is a historic accomplishment that places Brown among a small group of Black choreographers and dancers who have created dances for the Met—Alvin Ailey (Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” in 1966 and Bizet’s “Carmen” in 1972), Louis Johnson (“La Giaconda” and “Aida”), Katherine Dunham (“Aida” in 1963), Arthur Mitchell (“Salome” in 1973, “Porgy and Bess” in 1985), and Janet Collins, Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, as principal dancers. De Lavallade also choreographed productions of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and the 1990 production of “Porgy and Bess,” her debut as a choreographer. Now, Brown joins this illustrious list.

Brown is a prolific choreographer “reclaiming the cultural narrative of African American identity” with work that “taps into both ancestral stories and contemporary culture to capture a range of deeply personal experiences.” She is a four-time Princess Grace Award winner, a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award winner, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and TED Fellow, among other honors. While she first came to the dance world’s attention as a member of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, a dance company, her journey reflects a vivid versatility mixed with a compelling vision of culture’s purpose. She has created works for her own company (Camille A. Brown and Dancers), the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Broadway and off-Broadway shows, like “Choir Boy” and “Once On This Island,” and the award-winning TV production “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” “Porgy and Bess” promises to reaffirm Brown’s phenomenal talent.

Asked how “Porgy & Bess” came about, Brown humility is reflected in her initial surprise: “Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, called and asked if I was interested. I definitely was. But, I really don’t know how people find me. I mean, when I got the call for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I was like, “How did you guys find me?” I think Peter had seen my work around, also, I think people told him about me but I really don’t know.”

It’s been 30 years since the Met’s last production of “Porgy & Bess” and with this momentous occasion one is bound to be a bit nervous. Brown pauses then admits, “Well, I’m always terrified but there’s a tremendous excitement about this opportunity.” But, once in the rehearsal studio, she’s too busy to be terrified. “When I’m in the room it’s about the show. The other day a reporter said, ‘Oh, my God, isn’t this amazing! You’re at the Met!’ I was like, ‘To be honest with you I’m just working to make sure the show is solid.’ After all, she says, getting distracted by anything else means, “risking not creating work that comes from a genuine place.”