'Ink': Celebration of African-American dance makes its Middle East debut

Saeed Saeed speaks to choreographer and dancer Camille Brown about her latest production, which examines the African diaspora

Camille Brown, second from left, is bringing her acclaimed dance show 'Ink' to NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre. Photo by Christopher Duggan
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A celebration of African-American culture is coming to Abu Dhabi today.

As part of New York University's Art Centre season, the immersive dance spectacle Ink will make its Middle Eastern debut, featuring themes stemming from both history and today's news.

Choreographed by New Yorker Camille Brown, who will also perform with her cast on stage, the fast-moving, hour-long production moves through various dance suites that touch upon myriad strands of the African-American experience, from migration to self-empowerment and fellowship.

These are heady topics that Brown has been exploring for the best part of a decade; Ink marks the conclusion of a trilogy of works that began with 2012's Mr Tolerance and 2015's Black Girl: Linguistic Play.

"But Ink can definitely be approached as a stand-alone piece," she confirms.

“When I did the trilogy I didn’t want each piece to seem like run-on sentences. If you see them individually, they should be able to stand alone and if you put them together, they do form a commentary of the past, present and future in terms of black identity and perception.”

A dance journey through the ages

Indeed, Ink's acclaim comes from its sense of time-travel. The piece opens with a solo routine that begins with a call to Elegba, a deity from the West African Yoruba tradition revered as a protector and communicator.

Then we move to early 20th-century duet dances such as the Hustle and Lindy Hop, which Brown describes as "the beauty of black love and intimacy".

Ink continues to progress through the years and, in turn, illustrate the various dance styles and music that either originated in or seeped into African-American communities. There is tap dancing, and contemporary dance powered by a varied soundtrack that ranges from West African folk music to early and modern hip-hop.

Brown says Ink is an effective way to wrap up the trilogy, as each part addresses increasingly broader themes.

“The first instalment was more about black stereotypes in the media, so that was very specific. The next one was about black girls and talking about stories and humanity,” she says.

"I would say that Ink is more talking about the African diaspora and the language that travels from Africa to America and how it morphs and progresses."

Is now the right time to tell these stories?

With African-inspired stories and music now taking a firm foot hold in popular culture, from the success of the blockbuster 2018 film Black Panther to the rise of afrobeat stars on the US mainstream charts, I ask Brown if she feels she is producing her work at the right time.

Intriguingly, she says the answer is not simple.

“There is a lot to unpack with that question,” she says. “For one thing, the idea of people being influenced by the African tradition is not new. And to generalise choreographers being influenced by Africa is not safe because not all of them are black. So speaking for myself, because I am black and I have personal connection to the African diaspora, all I can I say is that I love what I am doing because this is my history and heritage.”

Yet, Brown says the show’s specific themes can be enjoyed by everyone, as human existence is ultimately a universal experience.

“I want people to walk away and experience what they say are ‘all the feels',” she says.

“There is joy and celebration and there are some things that perhaps may be challenging. Someone may say, ‘well, I don’t understand that because I have never felt oppressed’, but you can say, ‘have you ever been put in situations that you didn’t want to be in?'”

It’s those kinds of audience exchanges that Brown hopes the show inspires. She urges the crowd to stay back for the post-gig conversation panel, featuring her and some of the cast, where more ideas and truths are exchanged.

Ink by Camille A Brown & Dancers is April 25 at the Red Theatre, NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre. 8pm. Dh100. For details go to www.nyuad-artscenter.org