When James Robinson’s electric new production of Porgy and Bess returned the Gershwins’ great American opera to the Met stage last fall, audiences couldn’t help but be swept away by the vibrancy of Catfish Row. Not only did the 90-person cast sing beautifully, they also expressed their joys and sorrows through “alternately sinuous and frenzied movement” (The New Yorker) choreographed by Camille A. Brown, the Tony Award nominee who made her company debut with the staging.
In much of her work, Brown encourages her dancers to tap into their shared “blood memory,” as she calls it, and she brought this same approach to the choreography for Porgy and Bess. “Movement is such a strong part of African American culture,” she explains. “We have all of this history in our bodies, and I wanted the cast to tap into that. Everyone has a very specific view of what dance is—the turns, the spins, the flips—but there’s also another side of dance that comes from the black experience that is inside each one of us.”
Before arriving at the Met, Brown founded her own company, Camille A. Brown and Dancers, in 2006, and worked on Broadway productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Once on This Island, and Choir Boy—the latter earning her a 2019 Tony nomination. But despite her extensive body of work and numerous accolades, Brown confesses that she was apprehensive when invited to join the creative team for Porgy and Bess. “I was terrified,” she says. “It was the first time that I’ve worked with so many people. Before this, the biggest project I worked on was the live television performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, but that was only 44 people. Stepping into rehearsals for Porgy was exciting and thrilling, but also very scary.”
Brown’s fears were quickly swept away by the exceptional ensemble cast. “They were just alive and on fire,” she says. “It was really important for me to work with them to create a real community on stage. And I didn’t want this show just to be a performance of black culture. It had to have the authenticity of black culture.”
Growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Brown discovered that movement could be a key to unlocking her own self-expression. “It felt like moving a mountain every time a teacher asked me to speak up or participate in class,” she says. “Dance was a way that I could actually speak my mind, but through my body.” This passion soon brought her to Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, right behind the Metropolitan Opera House. “I was here at 13, walking through Lincoln Center,” Brown recalls, “and now I’m choreographing for the Met!”
One of her first priorities during the Porgy rehearsal process was to break down any barriers between singers and dancers. “I didn’t want it to be a space where first you have the dancers, and then the actors, and then everybody comes together every five minutes,” she explains. “I really wanted it to be a community where it’s all flowing and everybody has the same energy.”
This season, in addition to Porgy and Bess, Brown’s choreography also appeared in the Public Theater’s acclaimed revival of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and at New York’s historic Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—as well as in a number of performances by Brown’s own company. In everything she does, Brown strives to create art that engages performers and audiences alike. “I want the audience to feel invited into what we’re creating on stage,” she says. “It’s not just us performing for them—they become a part of it too.”
Porgy and Bess returns to the stage on January 8 and runs through February 15— with three additional performances recently added.