Camille A. Brown’s “The Real Cool,” Coming to The Kitchen

Note: This review marks the continuation of a series dedicated to showcasing the best student writing from the Dance History course I teach at The Juilliard School.

By Tiare Keeno

As the curtain rose at The Joyce Theatre on February 3, the Working Women program commenced with Monica Bill Barnes “Luster (part 1: the set up).” This highly theatrical, energetic piece from 2012 warmed up the audience. The eight works that followed also held this dancer-writer’s interest. They included Janis Brenner’s extraterrestrial-like solo “Contents May Have Shifted” (2002), performed by Holly Farmer, Loni Landon’s world premiere “Rebuilding Sandcastles,” Carolyn Dorfman’s lighthearted duet “Keystone,” (2012) and Sidra Bell’s world premiere “Beyond the Edge of the Frame,” a regal ensemble work.

But one work far exceeded the others, and that was Camille A. Brown’s “The Real Cool.” The solo is part of a full-length dance “Mr. TOL E. RAncE,” which will premiere April 2-6 at The Kitchen.

Brown, a well-known African-American choreographer, has been lauded for her character-driven, highly physical dance works that combine vernacular and concert dance traditions. Judging from “The Real Cool” excerpt, Brown’s “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” will deftly explore the experiences of African-American performers today, and yesterday.

“The Real Cool” begins with Brown standing in a pool of light; her head is down, her knees are bent, and the palms of her hands are exposed to the audience. Wearing black pants, a blazer, and white gloves, Brown moves behind two magnified projections; they create a large, haunting silhouette of her figure on the cyclorama. Brandon McCune’s tune “What A Wonderful World” is used to ironic effect.  Wonderful world? Not in the least. With raw, precise, fluid movements, Brown appears like a puppet being manipulated by an outside force. Her audible rhythmic breaths evoke a sense of frustration and entrapment.

As she repeatedly slices her arms, Brown looks as if she’s trying to escape the world. Then in a blink of an eye, she resembles a clown, a black minstrel performer. She exhales miserably as though the clowning exhausts her. In these moments, Brown poetically conveys the exasperating history of the African-American performer who was made to perform stock roles, all of which were demeaning.

The brilliance of Brown’s “Real Cool” not only lies with its content but with her impassioned performance. As the piece nears the end, Brown strips off the white gloves, revealing the brown color of her hands. Then tears stream down her face.

Tiare Keeno is a first year Dance Division student at The Juilliard School.

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