Hello, Opera? Meet Social Dance. It’s a Showstopper.
Camille A. Brown had a lot of catching up to do. She wasn’t part of the original creative team behind Terence Blanchard’s opera “Fire Shut Up in …
Camille A. Brown had a lot of catching up to do. She wasn’t part of the original creative team behind Terence Blanchard’s opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” when it was presented in 2019 in St. Louis. But at the Metropolitan Opera, where the production runs through Saturday — the first time a work by a Black composer has been presented there in its 138-year history — her touch is palpable.
Clearly, she caught up. And she’s making history, too: Brown, who shares directorial duties with James Robinson, is the first Black artist to direct a Met production. She is also the opera’s choreographer, and as such has brought social dance — step, the percussive form popular at historically Black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.) — to the Met stage.
Opening Act III is a step number that stops the show in its tracks. On opening night, the dancers held their final pose, one foot crossed over the other as sweat poured down their faces. Frozen in a line facing the audience, they tried to control their breathing as the audience clapped and roared. And clapped and roared some more. It lasted for more than a minute, and it was spectacular.
When was the last time a dance stopped an opera in its tracks? Brown, a Tony-nominated dance-maker who choreographed “Porgy and Bess” under Robinson’s direction at the Met, has never experienced anything like it.
“I was just thrilled,” she said. “I was thrilled for the moment. I was thrilled for social dance. I was thrilled for the dancers onstage that had been working for six weeks to put this show together.”
She added: “I feel like the audience — to me — was clapping for several reasons. It was about the dance, but it was about what it meant to see that on the stage. And legacy.”
Step and its use of the body as a percussive instrument speaks to the Black experience: When their drums were taken away, enslaved people created rhythm with their bodies. In the opera, step enters the picture when the protagonist, Charles (Will Liverman), is a college student and pledges at the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. He also continues to grapple with the experience of having been molested by his older cousin when he was a young boy, seen in flashbacks. (The opera is based on the 2014 memoir by The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.)
While Act I contains no actual dance, the characters roam the stage with vibrant texture — their everyday, pedestrian movement, both rich and real, is recognizably Brown. Along with the step number, Brown choreographed another major dance, which opens Act II and shows Charles surrounded by dancers slipping in and out of erotic moments. Full of tension and longing, it reveals the character’s state of mind: confused and anguished, yet also intrigued.
Brown is adept at baring emotion through the body. The dancers, their arms reaching imploringly, move vividly and broadly as if washing the stage with brushstrokes. Later, they transform into trees as Charles sings: “We draw our strength from underneath. We bend, we don’t break. We sway!”
As he sings, Charles rounds his body forward in a powerful contraction and opens his arms as he stands straight and ultimately rises above his suffering.
In “Fire,” which will be broadcast theatrically on Oct. 23 as part of the Met Live in HD series, Brown displays her choreographic range. “There was the more contemporary dance side, and then there’s the more rhythmical side,” she said. “You don’t get to feel those extremes in one place very often.”
And her directorial prowess is only growing. Up next? She directs the Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Recently Brown spoke about her work on “Fire” and honoring her ancestors. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did you, as a choreographer and director, envision the opera?
When I’m working on a show, and as a director of my company, I always try to find, what is my entry point to the story? I thought about some of my dear friends that had very similar stories, so I entered it in that way.
When I first heard about the opera and I found out that there was a fraternity section, I was so excited. There’s an opportunity to do a step dance inside of an opera?
Why is it so important to put social dance on the Met stage?
We talk about Terence being the first Black composer on the Met stage. And so along with that comes the Black lens and along with that comes Black culture spoken through or danced through the Black lens. And knowing that, at one point in the Met’s history, Black people weren’t allowed to perform on that stage.
So you go from that to now: We are doing something that is so rooted in African tradition on the Met stage. That is so powerful. You see the fraternity-sorority, you see the H.B.C.U., but you also see the Juba dance [the African-American percussive form that uses the feet and the hands]. And you see the African diaspora onstage.
How did you put the number together?
I was inspired by two movies: “Drumline” and “School Daze.” I’ve always loved “School Daze,” and when this opportunity came about to create the fraternity scene, I thought this needs to be a moment. Yes, Charles is pledging, and he’s going through that experience, but it’s also important, especially being on the Met stage, to show as much as we can of what that whole entire experience is.
I want to talk about the dream ballet. Is it OK if I call it that?
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, that’s totally fine.
What were you thinking?
In any show that I’ve done, there’s always one piece that is really, really hard for me. And that was what you call the dream ballet. The first two weeks of working on it, I was freaking out a little bit because I wasn’t liking what I was doing.
I was talking to my co-director, James Robinson, about the movie “Moonlight” and about how Charles was wrestling with what we are calling phantoms in his dreams — and how they haunted him, but they also enticed him. And so I gave myself a break and eased back on criticizing myself and said, You know what? Just play. Give yourself the space to figure it out.
How did “Moonlight” influence you?
Just by the beautiful imagery. Just wanting to talk about relationships and the sensitivity, and how does it feel to touch someone for the first time? Feeling like it’s wrong, but wanting to trust that it’s OK.
How involved were you in the first act?
It may be easy for someone to come in and go, Oh, well, she just did the choreography. But that really wasn’t the case. James and I were both thinking about the molestation scene and how the chorus interacts.
Most of the chorus members were also in “Porgy,” so I’d already worked with them. We were talking about how they move because even though they’re technically not dancing, they still are moving. And it’s the 1970s. We looked at some videos and talked: What were the small ways that people walked to indicate the time period?
Was Katherine Dunham in your mind throughout this experience?
Oh! Why do you ask?
Because of your use of social dance and the fact that she choreographed at the Met. And because so much of this opera, at its root, is about the body as a force. It’s urgent. It made me think of your lineage.
I always carry her and Pearl Primus and Dianne McIntyre and Marlies Yearby in the space with me. This is a historical moment, but this is also about people who have paved the way for you. It is coming from a deep place — it is coming from the social dance. How can I contribute to that legacy of Black choreographers delving into the African diasporic space? It’s about contributing to the space. When we do what we know, and we show how honest we are with our decisions, that is honoring our ancestors.