Camille A. Brown is something of an unstoppable force. After beginning her career as a dancer for Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, A Dance Company, she formed her own company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, which has given exhilarating performances at the Ordway in past years. Brown has also found a home on Broadway, where she’s racked up Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations. This week, you can see her choreography in the Tony Award-winning revival of “Once on This Island.”
We caught up with Brown by phone in New York, while she was at the gym. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you find the balance between creating your own work and creating work that lines up with the vision of a director?
A: When I’m working on a theater project, I’m walking in with the script, the music, a vision. With my concert dance work, we are building the script and trying to figure out what the music sounds like. It’s me being the director versus being guided by a director. Now, that is starting to change because I’m starting to direct inside of theater, too. I get to align what I do in concert dance inside of that world, too. So there’s a constant ping-ponging.
Q: What are you directing right now?
A: I’m going to be directing and choreographing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for Westport Playhouse in July, in Connecticut, and then it goes to Barrington Stage [Company] in Massachusetts.
Q: How did director Michael Arden approach you about choreographing “Once on This Island?”
A: One of his friends actually hit me up on Facebook and said that there was a project coming up and he thought that I would be a great choice for it. So Michael and I connected, and then I met with the writers, Stephen [Flaherty] and Lynn [Ahrens], and then from there I was on the show.
Q: When you’re working on a theater piece, how does the narrative inform the movement?
A: In “Once on This Island,” the culture tells us how we move. Stephen and Lynn were very inspired by the Caribbean islands, specifically Haiti, so it gave me an opportunity to dive into Afro-Cuban, Afro-Haitian and West African movement. It’s also about listening to the kind of world it is and aligning that with the actual story and narrative.
Q: How did you go about researching some of that Haitian dancing and other dancing from that region?
A: I’ve been trained in West African and Afro-Cuban [dance], so it wasn’t like I was coming into something that I had never done before. The only thing was, I had Afro-Haitian [dance experience] but not as much. So, I connected with Maxine Montilus, who is an Afro-Haitian consultant. What I told her was that when she comes to see the show, don’t expect to see the actual steps we talked about, because this isn’t a cut-and-paste. This is for me to be informed and know the origins and pay respect to that, and then combine that with my choreographic voice.
Q: Does the work you’ve been doing in theater, and now opera in the past several years, inform your work as a concert dance choreographer?
A: Yeah, well, that’s why I do it. That’s why I’m staying in both worlds, because it makes me a better choreographer. I’ve always loved character-based work, and in theater, that’s all you do is tell a story, and the craft of making an arc and building a narrative. So, to me, it helps me to continue honing my craft.
Q: So, what else have you been up to when you aren’t choreographing or directing?
A: I’m working on a project with [Tony Award-winning director, playwright and producer] George C. Wolfe now, so I just came back from rehearsal. I’m at the gym right now because my company is starting to tour next month, and I’ve got to be onstage. I think we may go international this summer. There are all these moving parts. It’s very exciting, terrifying and overwhelming all at once.
Q: You must not have a time to even take a breath.
A: I do. I give myself quiet time. I actually like working out at the gym. This is helping me to be healthy. It’s time for me.