Choreographer Christal Brown takes dance, theatre, history, inspiration and a strong social message and balances that into that of a dance-theatre show like no other
On Jan. 29th at 7PM in the Belk Theatre, located in Robinson Hall, choreographer Christal Brown and her nine member ensemble group from the INSPIRIT Dance Company will be performing their dance-theatre piece, “The Opulence of Integrity: A Movement Odyssey Exploring the Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali” for the students of UNC Charlotte. The show combines the best of modern dance, theatre and multimedia art into a single show detailing the legacy of world-famous boxer and cultural icon, Muhammad Ali. Brown was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to sit down with the Niner Times to discuss this fascinating upcoming show.
In your own words, could you describe how “The Opulence of Integrity” differs and sets itself apart from a traditional modern dance show?
Even in using the term “modern dance” you get a huge gamut of what you could see in a theater, so “The Opulence of Integrity” is much more of a dance-theater work. It uses the life of Muhammad Ali as a catalyst to examine the lives of men of color in the United States, in terms of where their personal power lies and how their talents transfer into cultural capital and what cultural capital can do for a community, for an ethnic group and people in general.
You dedicated the show to your father, brother and uncle, saying “They fought but did not win” and also to your son, saying “His battle has yet to begin.” Could you talk about the meaning of this in relation to the show?
When I started to study out the life of Ali, in terms of making this piece, I started to see how it was he lived out his divinity or his larger purpose in life and how his humanity somehow got in the way of how his purpose in life was perceived by others. When I think about my father, who did two tours in Vietnam and lost both his legs and my brother and I being born after that, I think of that battle as being one that he lost in terms of trying to make a decision to provide for his family and at the same time putting his life in jeopardy, seeing as that might not have been his calling or purpose in life. Then, my brother, who has come to struggle as being a member of the prison industrial complex for the last 10 years and thinking about how his divinity is being squelched or recapitulated in a way that’s not about what he is, but about what he’s trying to become from a worldly standpoint. My son, on the other hand, is five-and-a-half now and we live in a small town in Vermont called Middlebury and I think about him finding himself first before he’s told who he is by the world is a part of creating and preparing him to fight this battle.
Is that divinity that you saw in both Ali as well as the men in your family the reason you chose Ali as the subject of this piece?
This piece actually began as a collaboration with a jazz musician by the name of Fred Ho, who has since passed away. He was really in love with Ali and he was really using the legacy and energy of Ali to fight his battle with cancer. So he asked me to choreograph the last piece of music he wrote called “The Sweet Science Suite,” which was dedicated to Muhammad Ali, which is how I got into going into the research on Ali.
How did you find a way to incorporate boxing elements and dance into the same show? It’s not something you would think could go together, but are arguably very similar.
I think they really are very similar. Being a professor and chair of the dance department at Middlebury College, I have a very broad definition of what dance is. I feel as if any type of embodied scholarship or any type of knowledge in the body that comes out or is displayed with a distinct movement characteristic, for me is dance. Boxing, I feel, has a very particular way of using the feet, as well as a very particular way of using the torso and dissecting space. What we’re trying to do is to galvanize these movement qualities into that of the work.
The show is divided into four movements. How do you feel these movements differ from each other? Without giving any spoilers, of course.
It’s a four movement work that is set up in different areas of Ali’s life. Movement one is called “Passing the Torch,” which details that of the cultural shift between that of Malcolm X to Muhammad Ali, how Ali came under Malcolm’s tutelage and became this other kind of cultural icon in his own right. Movement two is more along the lines of that of legendary Ali, at the time where Ali was treated more like a superhero than that of a real person. Movement three is called “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me N*gger,” which detailed that of Ali’s defiance against the Vietnam War. Then, the last movement is more about the transcendent nature of who Ali has become in the lives of people as a cultural icon, as a historical figure, as a boxer, as a man and as the legend that he lives as today.
Admittedly, UNC Charlotte sometimes has a negative quality about itself where students often don’t go outside their department, meaning that dance students a lot of times only go to dance shows, theatre kids only go to theatre shows, etc. What about “The Opulence of Integrity” do you think can break down these boundaries to bring students from every department out to see it?
First off, this show has a speaking element to this work, making it very theatrical. We’re going to have Patrick Washington with us here, who is a poet from Washington D.C. and he’s written the invocation of the piece and is also the voice of Ali throughout the piece. There’s text and movement throughout the piece, so there’s a great crossover there, so that those who aren’t traditional dance audiences can grasp what’s happening with the text. There’s also a multimedia element to the show, with projection design that keeps you engaged throughout the piece, in terms of visuals, that are two-dimensional rather than live on stage. I feel that all those elements working together can really break down the silos of discipline. Also, the fact that it’s about a living legend that corresponds with what we’re going through in our nation now with this onslaught of racialized violence that we’re becoming akin to seeing on social media. It’s a way of putting these real-life characters in this large gamut of men of color into a place where people can see them in their authenticity.
In the end, what would you like viewers to take away from the piece?
I think one thing that I really want people to take away after seeing the piece is for them to find their own opulence in life, to find out what they can do to the fullest, to think about how integral that is to who they are and never let go of that. I think that’s one thing we’ve gleaned from the legacy of Ali, that he held onto what his truth was, no matter what.
Again, “The Opulence of Integrity: A Movement Odyssey Exploring the Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali” takes place on Jan. 29th in the Belk Theatre located in Robinson Hall. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $12 for UNC Charlotte faculty, family and alumni, $10 for seniors and $8 for students.