Review: Camille A. Brown Still Holds the Harlem Stage

Review: Camille A. Brown Still Holds the Harlem Stage

Camille A. Brown is not a choreographer lacking in opportunities to show her work. A current Tony nominee for “Hell’s Kitchen,” she has a premiere scheduled for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival later this summer and another Broadway show, a revival of “Gypsy” with Audra McDonald, opening in December.

Still, it was a sign of Brown’s generosity that “Black Joy,” her program at Harlem Stage this weekend, was almost all work by her associates. This was in the spirit of the season that the program closed, a 25th anniversary edition of E-Moves, a dance series dedicated to providing space and resources for artists of color. Twenty years ago, E-Moves gave Brown one of her first chances. In this program on Friday, she was paying it forward.

Not that her five associates haven’t already found success on their own. Mayte Natalio’s choreography is on Broadway now, too — in “Suffs.” Her “Sugar Hill,” a tribute to the neighborhood, was one of the more legible and theatrically effective entries at Harlem Stage. To the chugging of Bill Withers’s “Harlem,” three dancers, each equipped with a pillow and a sheet, acted out the differences, as Withers describes them, between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

As the sound of “Sugar Hill” switched to that of Nina Simone sermonizing at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, asking Black people, “Are you ready?,” the movement intensified, taking on more West African vocabulary and percussiveness. Then time jumped to the New York City blackout of 1977. A bolder choice would have been to shut the lights off, but they strobed instead. That final effect was a bit crude, but throughout the piece the choreography stayed vivid without losing its beautiful lightness.

Chloe O. Davis, a standout dancer in “Hell’s Kitchen,” offered an excerpt from her work “The Memorial.” Her dancers were joined in a procession by the violinist Erica Spyres and the magnificent voice of the soprano Kimberli Render. On an otherwise empty stage, dancers overturned a memory box of photos, scattering the contents with their spinning. As Render sang “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” they danced the spirit in pummeling footwork or inched along the floor on their backs. The physicality seemed to be working through grief.

While Davis’s choreography was hampered by some rambling and opacity, those flaws were more evident in the selections by her male counterparts. Rickey Tripp’s “that lady, part 1” was another memorial — this one to the choreographer’s grandmother, represented by a lady’s hat fit for church. The music was Withers again: a live recording of “Grandma’s Hands.” The sweet-natured dancer Joshua Dawson conjured a child well, but the choreography failed to fill out the song.

Juel D. Lane also had gratitude to women on his mind. His “She” was, according to a program note, “a love letter to Black women.” But here the music, by Leo RA Soul, was too structureless to give much help. The solo dancer, Gabrielle Loren, looked potentially powerful — “real bad,” as a voice said — but the power of the choreography sputtered.

Maleek Washington’s “Breakthrough” seemed to be more about the emotional unavailability of men. It began with Elyse S. Morris and Marcus Williams slow-dancing to a classic of romance, Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” but something was off, as Williams kept retreating during the choruses. The scene then shifted to a couples therapy session, marred by clunky dialogue and halting delivery, during which Williams communicated his fear of something going wrong. The supposed breakthrough was unconvincingly rendered as a therapy exercise, the two lovers tasked with expressing their feelings through movement.

Well, yes, that is the idea. The program ended with Brown’s “Turf,” in which two guys on the corner have a conversation without words. That their feelings are both understandable and not entirely paraphrasable was the sign of a more developed choreographic voice. Her associates are following her example, but this is still her turf.

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