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Camille A. Brown in 'Ink.' Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

ON DANCE: Ink — A celebration of Black history and identity

By Wednesday, Nov 6, 2019 Arts & Entertainment

Ink is the culmination of a dance trilogy on race and Black identity by choreographer Camille A. Brown and Dancers. Ms. Brown was introduced to Berkshire audiences two years ago at Jacob’s Pillow in the lyrical second part of the trilogy, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. There, in front of a white chalkboard covered with childish doodles and squiggles, we entered the world of Black girls, with their games, dramas and challenges.

Ink is also danced beneath two billboards, framing the stage. But rather than evoking childhood, these boards are collaged with photos of strong, vibrant Black faces set into a seemingly random surface of smudges, lines and shapes. These portraits show men and women full of joy and purpose in a busy and challenging visual world. At the talkback after the performance, Ms. Brown spoke of the billboards as reflecting, but not identical to, the dances depicted on stage.

‘Milkshake’ from ‘ink.’ Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

The show unfolds through a series of six vignettes: Culture Codes; Balance; Milkshake; Turf; Shedding; and Migration. Each vignette tells a story about Black lives through movement, emotion, utterances and the swinging, rhythmic, jazz-infused music of Camille A. Brown’s quartet.

Ink opens with a solo, a call to the Yoruba deity Elegba-a, bringing us into the world of Black culture and identity by evoking its African roots, danced sinuously and powerfully by Ms. Brown. Through the ensuing scenes, we see and hear how those ancestral sounds and rhythms weave through time, place and the everyday rituals of Black life in America.

‘Shedding’ from ‘ink.’ Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

These dances depict uplifting stories of identity and the heroism of ordinary individuals persevering and triumphing over their challenges. Ms. Brown speaks in her notes of wanting her dancers to represent superheroes, celebrating Black resilience and connection, the claiming of one’s body, the rituals and bonds of Black youth coming of age, and the trials and strengths of individuals and communities.

At the center of the performance is Turf, danced by two charismatic, vibrant, athletic young artists: Juel D. Lane and Maleek Washington. Turf depicts young men in the innocence of youth, challenging each other yet standing together when faced with the adversity and exhaustion of navigating the world as young Black men. Their delighted partnering, deep-shared aspiration, admiration and friendship uplifted both their own presentations, but also enthralled the audience.

Monique Roberts in ‘ink.’ Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

In the final narrative, the entire company is in migration, moving through time and space to new lives. The supple, lyrical lines of violinist Monique Brooks Roberts accompanies their journey as she circles slowly around them, a profound and moving expression of resourcefulness, beauty and resilience.

The narratives feel as though we are being let into lived lives — full, infused with personality, as believable as improvisation, yet, as Ms. Brown explained in response to an audience question, fully and carefully choreographed. The dancers both show and feel their connections and deep regard for each other.

We are let into this emotional convergence of life and art after the final bows, to enthusiastic applause, when the dancers hug and high five each other. Then they turn to the audience for the conversation that always follows, letting us in, too.

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