Set on a vibrant island recovering after a massive storm, Once On This Island follows the story of a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with a wealthy boy. Their divided worlds tear them apart, and Ti Moune sets out on a journey, guided by the island gods, to reunite with her love. The production originally opened on Broadway in 1990 and scored eight Tony nominations. This month, the show returns to the Great White Way—with new choreography by Camille A. Brown, the founder and artistic director of Camille A. Brown & Dancers and a four-time Princess Grace Award winner. Dance Spirit caught up with Brown to see what the process has been like.
What drew you to this project?
It's a beautiful folktale about the innocence of childhood, love, perseverance, and community. I love that the protagonist is a black girl. It's wonderful seeing a reflection of myself onstage and seeing this character live inside of this lovely story. It's important for audiences to see, as well.
Telling a black girl's story was at the core of my last concert work, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. So I was in the right space creatively and intellectually.
What was your vision for the dancing?
I've been consulting with dancer and choreographer Maxine Montilus, who is Haitian-American and specializes in Afro-Haitian and Afro-Cuban dance. It's important for me to immerse myself in that world and to fully understand how it moves culturally. I study African-American social dances for my personal work and education, and it's fascinating to learn more about the origins of those dances. Specific dances we've focused on are Djouba, Contredanse, and Rabòday (known collectively as Konbit), and the Afro-Cuban Orisha dances: Eleguá, Shango, Ogun, and Oya.
What has your process been like?
My process, whether I'm choreographing for my company or for the theater, always begins with research. I love research. Theater is much more collaborative than company work, so my theater work is about coming together and crafting the vision of the project collectively.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
I don't think we see narratives of innocence through a black body as much as we should in the world. If I want audiences to walk away with anything, it would be for them to see young, black female bodies as children, as women, as vulnerable, as precious and as worthy as any other. And I want audiences to enjoy taking that journey with her.