THE OPULENCE OF CHRISTAL BROWN
Cover Photo by Kamara Dixon
When I first heard about a theatrical dance performance entitled “The Opulence of Integrity” that was dedicated to the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali, I was immediately captivated, curious and anxious to attend. To my delight and surprise, it was nothing what I expected. I entered the Kumble Theater auditorium at Long Island University’s, Brooklyn campus, to find three male subjects statically poised standing behind a red velvet rope that appeared to be members of the Nation Of Islam, dressed in sharp black suits and bow ties, each holding a copy of The Final Call newspaper. From that moment, I knew I was being prepared for an interesting journey. But let me back up for just a second.
As I entered the building, and approached the “will call” ticket window, I was greeted by the warm smile of an endearing young lady wearing a colorful African patterned dress who welcomed me to the performance. Something told me that this was in fact Miss Brown herself. “Good Afternoon! Thanks for coming out. I hope you enjoy the show.” Was the introduction given to me as I proceeded to enter, and the script was repeated to each person following behind me. What a nice touch! Rarely do you meet the persons behind the scenes of a performance until the press reception afterwards.
In the tradition of non-spoilage intel, I will not divulge the details of the performance, instead, I urge and encourage all who read this or get wind of the tour to experience it for themselves. I will say that the performance encompasses a vibrato of emotions and understanding through the lens of not only a legendary athlete, but a proud and fierce African American man, father and husband as well as the travails of a spiritual man in the face of extreme adversity. Brown manages to capture the essence of Ali’s moods, fervor and outspoken poetry in the form of stylized movement, all while packing a powerful punch of political consciousness and emancipation. This was the intended vision for the creator, Christal Brown, a bold and progressive thinker, dancer, choreographer and current professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. Raised in North Carolina, Brown’s professional career began at the tender age of nine, studying ballet, which soon led to her teaching ballet and acrobatics at the age of fourteen. That early stride soon evolved to her working with renown dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and the Urban Bush Women. What started as a path to educate became redirected to performance which eventually led to the synergy of activating both disciplines. Today, after transplanting from Greensboro to the Bronx, to Long Island University in Brooklyn, to Vermont, she’s blending two fields of research at a credited liberal arts college in New England where she graduates double dance and political science majors who are making change happen in the world as well as creating innovative works of socio-political movement arts.
According to Brown and the forward noted in the playbill, “The Opulence of Integrity for me is an exploration of the homogenous inner struggle for identity as it pertains to men of color in the United States. Using the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali as an archetype, I have been able to take an intimate look at the trappings that continually prohibit freedom. This work is dedicated to my father, brother, and uncle who fought but did not win and to my son who’s battle has yet begun. Born branded by history, burdened by responsibility and inspired towards greatness requires a committed heart and an opulence of integrity.”
TAON: What was the initial inspiration to create this project?
CB: Well, back in 2011, I was approached by a jazz musician by the name of Fred Hope, who recently passed away. He had been following my work for about seven years and battling with colon and prostate cancer. He had several organs removed and he was kind of like the bionic man. He’d written several books about his fight with cancer. He was a huge activist in terms of Afro-Asian politics and a lot of his inspiration to fight cancer came from Muhammad Ali. He wrote this piece called “The Sweet Science Suite” which was a five movement jazz composition for an ensemble of twenty musicians. He asked me to bring it to life through movement. Listening to the music, I broke down the complexity of the music into segments of time and started to make these snippets of movement. As a result, we premiered the incarnation of the original inspiration from him and my choreography at the Guggenheim Museum in 2012 as a work in progress show. After that, my rehearsal director, Tonya Rene Johnson who had been a part of my female company for about five years said that it was some of the best work I’d ever made, and the movement vocabulary is very interesting. So, I thought about working with an all-male cast and did more research on Ali. I began to understand who he was as a person and began thinking about him and the struggles of his life and I’d seen that before. I’ve seen how men strive for greatness and not be able to attain it for themselves, including settling for whatever other people told them they were. I saw that in my family, particularly my father and my brother who is now incarcerated, and I didn’t want to see that for my four year-old son. I started to look at these trappings and the way that Ali navigated his trajectory with purpose and used what people thought of him in a way to shift the paradigm of people’s understanding of not only him, but of the time period, the religious context he felt was important, and what it meant to be an athlete and man of color at that time.
TAON: Why do you think that integrity is so important to express in contemporary society and entertainment culture?
CB: I think because we sometimes have the connotation as a culture that integrity means the same as submission, and that it’s a weakness. You won’t get as far if you’re true to yourself as you could if you sell out or do something different or portray yourself in a way that the main stream would rather see. But what really drew me to the title and this piece dealing with Muhammad Ali is because he suffered and he won for his integrity. The things that he said weren’t always palpable for the masses, but it was the way that he said it, the way he used his valor and fame to make a statement. Those statements became what made him opulent. Not opulent in terms of economics or public appeal but opulent even now, in his struggle with Parkinsons. He can’t talk, but his presence lives on. No one looks at him as if he is less than the champion we’ve know him to be because he used his voice and life in a way that was branded as this is who I am. He never tried to placate his existence to make himself more acceptable to others. This is my truth and if you can’t deal with my truth, then you can’t deal with me.
As an educator, I see a lot of emerging adults in various stages of their lives and I watch young people figure out what their truth is through an educational system. They’re trying to make the learning apart of their lives and that’s not always easy, especially when the learning becomes very strenuous on their outer lives that they want to live, and it doesn’t agree. So, it takes a lot of courage to say that what this world is teaching me is not my truth. My life is not going to be a reflection of what you’ll have me to be, I’m going to be who I am.
TAON: Speaking of Ali being voiceless, what were the challenges associated with juxtaposing Ali’s attitude, big mouth and trash-talking with your fluid choreography and movement vocabulary?
CB: I think some of the challenges were that we needed to use vernaculars through the body that are not concert dance vocabularies. Conservatory trained dancers usually have two linear tracks, ballet and modern. Other styles like hip-hop, West African or any cultural, diasporic forms are not necessarily taught as a primary motive technique. I come from a varied movement background. I trained traditionally as well as trained in several martial arts forms, West African dance, as well as traveled a lot in terms of my choreographic and artistic research. I wanted to bring the bravado of his character to life through the use of movements that seemed to be non-linear. In my interpretation of Ali, his life was non-linear and so were his actions and train of thought. A story that stands out to me is one where he was in the training room taking vitals and he was hyped-up and talking trash, and his trainers were saying “Man, you gotta calm down, you’re going to have a heart attack!” His vitals were literally off the charts. Minutes later, he was watching a brother spar in the ring and he was as calm as a cucumber. The way that he could conjure this energy to be larger than life and at the same time be very human with his interactions among those people close to him. Within the movement vocabulary we used, it needed to be very present, like ‘shooting the dozens’ mentality, so it had to be very urban and tangible, but at the same time have artistic integrity behind it. It was a challenge for the dancers too because most of the time, trained performers leave there real dancer mentality behind, meaning that innate club feel or what you would do when no one is watching. So, what I asked them to do is to put their two selves together. How you dance like when no one’s watching with the technical and professional acumen.
TAON: How did you select your dancers? Was it based on professional acumen, poise, attitudes or athleticism?
CB: They are a gang of characters. I had a company of all women for ten years, and I never used a traditional audition process. When I started this process, I had an open audition but I used a lot of men who had been my students before, or had come into my artistic family somehow. I like working that way because the biggest compliment for an artist is to be referred by their peers. People know that in my life I have a very deep team mentality, so if you’re on my team, you’re a part of my family. I’m not a soloist.
TAON: Why do feel so obligated to speak up as a black woman for support of the black male experience?
CB: Well, if we don’t speak up for our counter-parts, they won’t speak up for us. The precursor to “Opulence” is another piece I made with my female company called “Say It Loud: The Bodies of Women, The Voices of Men”. It was a testament to a process that there are things that can be said from the mouths of black men but a lot of times when it is said it is taken to fruition through bodies of black women. There are a lot of things that can’t be said out of the mouths of black females, but it can be said through or felt from the body. In my own politics, I try to think about the reciprocal value of both genders of color and how we’re feeding the stereotypes and dispelling the myths about one another. With my son, the reality is that I’m a single mother so there will always be gaps in my understanding of what he’s going through as a black man. Artistically, I’m often watching men as peers and archetypes for what the battles are and preparing my own son.
TAON: What is it about movement that inspires us in ways that words, music, pictures or paintings cannot?
CB: I don’t know. I think that movement is one of the all-encompassing of the artistic forms because it comes from before we even called all of these things art. We move with each other. We move close to each other. When you have a group or just two people walking together in solidarity in silence, there’s something about that motion, continuity and precipice of being together and being in the same physical space of motion that brings us closer together. Movement is something that we still haven’t been able to dilute and break down to some type of codification that everyone understands every moment like we try to do with language. There’s still that quality of it where everyone has to be participating to figure it out. I’m really trying to pull people out of cyber-space to participate with one another. I need you to feel the movement not just watch it. There’s a different palpable energy that occurs when a person is giving their mind, heart and soul to something and it comes out in a non-verbal state.
TAON: What do you ultimately want people to take away from the show? Who is the target audience?
CB: I want the younger, lower age spectrum to know who Muhammad Ali is because I’m flabbergasted that people in that age range have no idea! I want them to find a piece of themselves in his story. For the middle-echelon age group to think in terms of how they’re living there lives and represent a true reflection of who they want to be in the world. And if not, to find the courage to find the essence of who they want to be and start to shift the paradigm between fantasy and reality in their day to day lives. And then, at the top end (the older generation), I want them to remember that their struggle and the work they did for this country for people of color was not in vain. I feel that the recent conversations about the new black, post black and post-racial is derogatory to people who laid their lives on the line just to be called black. I think we have to be respectful of the work that’s been done prior to afford us the opportunities that we have now. I’m very adamant that there’s a younger population that needs to know that what we have now is not just equal access, but a burden of proof do to what they’ve been called to do that others went to battle for on behalf of them. I want to inspire people toward greater heights.
*Christal Brown is the founder of the Inspirit Dance Company designed to infuse, invigorate and encourage through dance as well as Project Becoming which is the community engagement division of Inspirit Dance which uplifts young women through the use of expressive modalities, such as dance, writing and discussion, promoting creative exploration.
For more info about Christal Brown visit here
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