Choreographer Camille A. Brown explores humanity and superpowers in ‘Ink’

A man and a woman rest their heads together, forehead to temple. Two young men lean shoulder to shoulder, looking up, as though they’re finding light in the night sky. In Camille A. Brown’s Ink, they are superheroes set to fly.

Brown is a Bessie-awardwinning choreographer with a growing national following and collaborations on Broadway and Off Broadway. And she and her company will perform her newest work at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m., co-presented with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Pamela Tatge, director at Jacob’s Pillow, has followed Brown’s work for many years and has felt powerfully moved as Brown and her dancers riff in the moment and integrate music and dance so the people around her are immersed.

Ink is the third work in a trilogy, and the Pillow has brought the second to the Berkshires, Black Girl: Linguistic Play in 2015. In that work she reached back to a child’s open creativity and through the pressures she faced, through friendship and sisterhood and adolescence, and into a playful and resilient womanhood.

“I felt so liberated by Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” Brown said by phone from New York. “I wanted to expand on that, on the humanity of black people. What other stories can I lift up?”

And she thought of flying. In Black Girl, she and the dancers perform on platforms at different heights, she said, and they reminded her of Brooklyn, and how it feels when you stand on a rooftop and you can see all the roofs around you, as though you could jump from roof to roof across the city.

She thought of flight as a superpower, and in Ink she taken that idea and lifted off with it.

“What are all of the superpowers that can expand past the capes and the masks?” she asked, and she thought of the ability of black people to fly, to persevere, to go through the storm.

Each dancer or group of dancers here has a superpower of their own. In the duet between the two men, their power is the dap, the friendly greeting, the movements of the handshake. 

“The dap acts as a springboard,” Brown said. It’s a creative identity. When you see kids do it, it’s their secret code.”

They make it an intimate language and carry it with them as they go from boys to men; it’s a ritual. And they carry on together.

Maleek Washington and Timothy Edwards perform in Camille A. Brown's Ink. Photo by Marina Levitskaya, courtesy of Camille A. Brown and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

Maleek Washington and Timothy Edwards perform in Camille A. Brown's Ink. Photo by Marina Levitskaya, courtesy of Camille A. Brown and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

“At one point, they are breathing hard,” she said, “and a lot of people connect that to Eric Gardner, and that’s fine, but actually it’s a Game of Thrones reference — when a man wants to be king he is ritually drowned to the point of death, and if he survives he is immortal.” 

He survives a kind of suffocation, she said. Sometimes living through pressure pushing someone to be a greater person. But it is a weight.

“Being black in America is hard,” she said. “Sometimes I am reaching for air.”

When she has showed Ink as a work in progress, many people are shocked that the young men don’t turn on each other, but she asks, “why would you think that?”

She sees two men, two friends who have each other’s backs.

“It’s so liberating,” she said, “to go into Black Girl and Ink, reclaiming our stories without the need of a mask.”

She chose the name Ink in that spirit, because ink is indelible.

“It’s how we write our history, in our words,” she said. “At a talkback last year, one kid asked what the name meant, and another said, ‘you don’t write history in pencil. You write it with a pen, because you don’t want it erased.’”

The piece moves from the traditional and spiritual to current and contemporary, she said, or weaves them together. 

Percussion leads the music, and the sound can flip from hip-hop to Afro-Cuban to Scott Joplin in the 1920s, as her movement vocabulary can encompass hip-hop, social dance, modern and jazz and contemporary elements from different times and places in Africa and across the diaspora, into the Caribbean, across America.

“It’s visceral and physical,” Tatge said “… and she is a consummate researcher, an ethnographer of dance of the highest order. What we see is a vocabulary informed by many forms of dance, and it’s all her.”

In a section Brown calls Milkshake, a woman carries confidence in her own body.

“Her superpower is her derriere,” Brown said, laughing. 

She is a full-bodied woman, and she is proud of her curves.

This section is based on her work in the musical Bella, she said — as she and her dance company has grown, Brown has also expanded into theater.

“I love seeing her work on the Broadway stage (now),” Tatge said. “It’s new and different, and no one’s seen anything like it before. People are excited. She will push musid theater forward.”

In Milkshake she is inspired by the story of Sarah Baartman, born to a Khoikhoi family on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Baartman was coerced to join the circus in Europe, displayed at fairs and side shows, and her body was kept in a museum for many years after she died.

“I wanted to take that story and reclaim it and honor that woman’s story,” Brown said. “… We have to get past that insecurity to liberation, to take something shamed and sexualized and say this is me.”

In another duet, she said, a man and woman move together, exploring contact imagery and shifts of power and balance. Their roles are interchangeable — their superpower is sharing weight and the ability to rest on each other. She can lift him, as he can lift her.

She builds him up — you can do this and I’ll help — and then she takes the weight for him. 

I see her like Harriet Tubman,” Brown said. “To go through all that more times than I can count, you have to be a superwoman, to go through that over and over and face death.

“And that’s the superpower of black people, to keep going and hold others’ weight while you’re trying to deal with your own.”

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