When some 6 million viewers tuned in to watch John Legend as Jesus Christ, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Alice Cooper as King Herod in NBC’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock musical “Jesus Christ, Superstar” a few weeks ago, they also had an opportunity to see the magnificent work of the talented young African-American choreographer/dancer, Camille A. Brown.
Although this talented artist was not included in the recently announced Tony Nominations for Best Choreography for her work on the Broadway show “Once on This Island,” she has been blessed with nominations for the Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Chita Rivera awards for that show.
No worries. This young, gifted and Black woman’s star is on the rise with a number of exciting showcases for her talent on the horizon, including a production of “The Wiz,” set to play St. Louis June 19 to June 25 at The Muny theater, followed by another Broadway show, “Ain’t No Disco,” slated to begin previews June 29 and open June 24 at the Atlantic Theater.
When the Amsterdam News spoke to Brown recently, she was still pinching herself and counting her blessings after working on this major TV production depicting Christ’s last day before the crucifixion. As the youngest and only African-American female on the creative team behind a production one producer called “iconic” and another identified as “a great rock passion play,” Brown’s innovative and invigorating take on the dance numbers was a perfect fit that both highlighted and supported the dominant narrative of one of the greatest stories ever told. Needless to say, one has to have it together to do that for a live production that included 500 crew members, 33 musicians and 44 cast members—and a live audience of 1,300—in Brooklyn’s National Guard Armory in Williamsburg. Talk about a challenge!
Before the show aired, Brown told one reporter, “I’m having so much fun. This is one of the best experiences that I’ve had as a choreographer and collaborator. The energy is so good. In a lot of experiences, the focus is to get the work and to get things done. I’m focusing on that, but I’m also enjoying the process and that is something that is very special to me.”
Brown’s Facebook post before the show aired reflected her excitement as it offered folks a glimpse of the performance directed by David Leveux and also spotlighted her associate choreographer, Rickey Tripp, and her assistant choreographer, Mayte Natalio.
Now that the broadcast is over, Brown has time to reflect on the show that will surely be remembered as a major milestone in a career that is clearly ascendant. Because it wasn’t something she was pursuing, Brown said that when she met with the director, she thought he was going to ask her to audition but he wanted her to choreograph the show. “When I first accepted the meeting,” Brown said, “I thought, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen. I’ll never get this job,’” Apparently the director had seen some of her concert work and been following her for a couple of years.
“When David Leveux spoke to me about the show,” Brown said, “and what he wanted to do with it, it seemed to center around this universal idea of prayer and what it means to celebrate somebody. I immediately thought of this piece that I choreographed in 2006 that took into account the social dances in New Orleans, using them as a spring board for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’”
Asked about the Vaudeville-like number performed by female dancers in Folies Bergère-like outfits while accompanying Alice Cooper in “King Herod’s Song,” Brown said, her inspiration was African-American vernacular/social dance of the 1920s.
“I am also inspired by the people who are actually in the room because I think that’s what social dance is about,” she said. “It’s not just about a structure, but it’s also about people’s creative identity. It’s about pulling that out of the actors and dancers and really about getting to see them moving together. Also, the music is really a guiding force.”
Noting that the music sometimes reminded her of a 1990s hip-hop kind of sound, Brown said that inspired her to include steps from that era.
For Alice Cooper’s campy King Herod, the tone was set by the Black social dances that were all the craze in the 1920s, “like the Charleston and some of the other social dances of that era that were born out of the African-American experience and became national and international crazes.”
“There was a little boogie-woogie, some Shorty George, the Charleston and Suzi-Q and others,” she said.
Asked to pick a favorite, if that is even possible, Brown answered, “My favorite was probably ‘Superstar’ at the end. There were so many people to move around. They had to make a huge staging shift a couple of days before the show aired, so I kind of had to redo some things. But, it was fun. It was stressful because at one point we’re in this rehearsal, we’re creating this show and when we get to the set, it becomes we had to ask ourselves, ‘OK, what is the television audience seeing?’ That was very new to me, and I had to learn very fast and make real challenging decisions in a short amount of time.”
What the audience saw was spectacular, and Brown has succeeded in adding one more impressive item to her resume. It is a resume that reflects a career trajectory that continues to soar. That’s what Brown has done since her days dancing with Ron K. Brown/Evidence and up to her most recent triumphs as choreographer of Broadway’s “Once on This Island.”
And not only is she choreographing for her own company—Camille A. Brown & Dancers—but also her works are in the repertory of companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and she’s won numerous awards, including one from AUDELCO, the Bessies, and most recently a nomination to the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship program.
All that is only the beginning. Camille A. Brown’s star is clearly on the rise.