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

Brown says, initially Gelb actually invited her entire company to join the production. But, due to scheduling conflicts only two of her dancers—Chloe Davis and Malinka Reed—were free to join the Met’s 90-member cast. Still, Brown’s genius has infused the production with movement that transforms the stage into Gershwin’s fictional home for Porgy and Bess, Catfish Row. Director James Robinson suggested Brown look at footage of past productions of “Porgy & Bess” to get a sense of what had been done before. While some might have balked, Brown says, “I’m in this space where I feel confident enough with my work and what I want to say as an artist that I can look at someone else’s work and still have my own ideas.”

Judging from the rehearsals, Brown’s sure-footedness has inspired the cast. “I told the cast the goal is to really put life experience on the stage but not in a performative way.” The source of her magic is movement that captures the era’s social dance. “Every era has a specific way of moving,” Brown says pointing out that the 1970s breakdancing has a totally different aura from the 1940s and 1950s Lindy Hop. To inspire the Met performers to capture the body positioning of another place and time she says, “We talked about that during our first workshop by going back and forth talking about and experimenting with what is current now and what was current when ‘Porgy & Bess’ was created.” As they slipped into and out of movement styles, Brown jokingly cautioned, “Ya’ll can’t do the Nee Nee during this scene.”

Brown says the audience was also a major consideration. “You have to look out from the stage, whether it’s a Black story or not, and sometimes we don’t see reflections of ourselves. So, the question is how can we bring this experience and create a Black space, a space where we can really be ourselves. The wonderful thing is this effort is supported by the team. There wasn’t an instance where I thought, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t do that.’ I knew that now is the time that we do this. We have 90 Black people on stage. What are we going to do with that but be real.”

On the fact that this is an amazing moment in an amazing career, Brown says, “I am tremendously honored. I think that the thing I’m most proud of is that I’m doing it on my own terms. You know we don’t have to take our experiences, our way of moving and put it in a grinder where it comes out with all of our nuances erased. We’re able to be us, be really who we are and be unapologetic about it. Like I told the cast for ‘Choir Boy,’ I told the guys that when they go into this Step thing, most of the audience is not going to know what that is, but I said, this is for the 5 Black people that may be up in the balcony who do know what it is. I want them to see a reflection of themselves—a true reflection of Black people.”