On the Move

With her work on the Met’s recent hit stagings of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, director-choreographer Camille A. Brown has made dance a central part of the storytelling. As Fire was concluding its run and rehearsals got underway for Porgy’s first revival since its sensational 2019­–20 run, a trio of talented dancers involved in both productions reflected on Brown’s creative process and discussed how, in her hands, movement becomes a powerfully expressive tool. By Christopher Browner

“Camille’s the choreographer, and sometimes the director, but she’s also a collaborator. She leads the room, but she also leaves opportunity for us to make choices,” says dancer Christopher Figaro Jackson, who not only appeared in the Met’s production of Porgy and Bess (pictured above) in 2019 but also returns to Catfish Row when the opera is revived this month and just finished setting the stage ablaze in performances of Fire Shut Up in My Bones this fall. In addition to his roles on stage, Jackson is part of the talented choreography team—alongside fellow Fire veterans Maleek Washington and Jōvan Dansberry—responsible for getting Camille A. Brown’s vivid choreography for Porgy back on its feet this season.

Washington and Jackson have performed with Brown’s company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, for more than a decade, but for Dansberry, a member of the Met Ballet since 2014, Porgy and Bess was his first opportunity to work with the visionary choreographer. All three agree that working with Brown on Porgy held special significance for them, explaining how she was able to share some fundamental aspects of Black culture with Met audiences for the first time. “At the Met, every night is something different, and I love putting on many different characters, but it’s even more fulfilling to be in a piece that I can relate so much to,” says Dansberry, who, with Jackson, is an assistant choreographer for this season’s revival and also dances in the opera. “Camille brings movement that is so embedded in our culture and who we are as individuals, and makes it a core part of the production.”

DSC_0669.jpgFrom left: Christopher Figaro Jackson, Maleek Washington, and Jōvan Dansberry

Brown’s choreography for Porgy combines contemporary dance with historically informed gestures, but she also encourages the performers to bring pieces of themselves onto the stage, telling them, “The dancer you were yesterday is not the dancer you are today. Every day is going to change you, so let me see that evolution reflected in how you move.” Washington, the associate choreographer, says that this approach was evident in 2019, recalling an early movement workshop in which Brown used dance and shared gestures to bind the cast together. “She told everyone—the dancers and the chorus—to show her how we would express joy, sorrow, how we would pray. All of a sudden, everything shifted,” he says. “I got goosebumps and thought, ‘Wow, we have a show.’”

The result for the performers is a deeply authentic, deeply personal experience—one which Dansberry felt even more strongly appearing in Fire Shut Up in My Bones. “As a queer Black man, I’ve never felt so connected to a story,” he says. Washington also points out the effect it can have on the audience. “When a story is treated so authentically with so much care, especially about someone’s actual life,” he says, “it sends the message that at the Met, we want everyone here, and we want all their stories told.”

FIRE_5779a.jpgA scene from Fire Shut Up in My Bones

It’s been a thrill and a privilege for the team to follow in Brown’s footsteps and oversee this season’s revival. “It feels like coming home. There was so much energy and excitement around this production when it premiered two years ago, so it’s been great to return to it and also make some new fresh choices,” says Dansberry. For Washington, recreating Brown’s choreography has been an act of re-stitching. “It’s like something’s unraveled after not being touched for a while, and we just have to put it back together,” he says. “So much has happened to all of us in the last few years, so our job it to use that to re-root the work we did two years ago so that it remains fresh—for the dancers, the singers, and the audience.”

Christopher Browner
is the Met’s Associate Editor.