"The performance opens with Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X—whom the former Cassius Clay met while training for his 1964 title fight against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston—depicting their relationship as a catalyst for the black power movement. Brown then explores Ali’s transformation from successful boxer into a world-renowned personality, the result of being sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. The series’ final movement documents Ali’s comeback, when he recaptured the heavyweight title and the public’s imagination for his masterful victories over Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman."
In an interview, Brown responded to some questions about the making of Opulence and more.
Charmaine: Where did the idea to make this work “inspired” by Muhammad Ali come from?
Christal: I was originally approached by the late Fred Ho to create choreography for his album entitled “The Sweet Science Suite.” After premiering a draft of that work at the Guggenheim Works in Process in November of 2011, Fred and I developed our own versions of the work. In developing The Opulence of Integrity I began to look at Ali not as inspiration but as a lens. I believe his life mirrors the struggle of so many men of color who have divine aspirations of greatness, but human shortcomings keep them from achieving their purpose. Ali was driven by a force that he could not explain or harness. That indomitable spirit is what the work is about.
Charmaine: What tools, if any, did you use in preparing your dancers during the process?
Christal: The process of creating Opulence began in 2011 with a solo called No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger. While working with Dante Brown at Bates Dance Festival to create this solo I often referenced my father who lost both his legs in the Vietnam War. The stories I shared with Dante became part of the framework for the larger story. My personal life had a direct connection to the causes Ali was fighting for. I then began to ask Dante and subsequent artist who entered the process to find a personal connection to an aspect or experience in Ali's life and bring the connection into the work. In addition, we watched documentaries on Ali, read through biographies, and talked at length about the commonalities we found within finding purpose in our own lives, striving for greatness, and falling victim to our own humanities.
Charmaine: There is an all-male cast, was this intentional because of the “boxer” Ali, or were there other parts of his life that may have included women that were not intended for this work?
Christal: When I was initially approached about the idea of Ali I was asked to use an all-male cast. Having had an all-female company for 10 years the idea was intriguing. But as I began looking at every aspect of Ali's life I began to see that women were his weakness. I decided to bring this to light in movement two, "Larger than Life." In movement two the audience gets a brief glimpse into Ali's “kryptonite” and how his weakness has the power to change him from extraordinary to ordinary.
Charmaine: What about the “social activist,” “public martyr,” and “human being,” that you mention in other interviews, for example, where do these titles fit, or not in your work?
Christal: All of these titles are relevant to the work. Opulence looks at Ali as a parallel figure to Malcom X during the black power movement and a voice for the people. His denouement of the Vietnam War caused him public humiliation and separation from his title, spiritual teachers, and colleagues. But throughout his life of triumphs, failures and illness he has remained true to himself as a vessel of opulence and integrity. In addition to the physicality of the work, Ali's words are given life by three speakers who use Ali's quotes to contextualize each movement.
Charmaine: What, if anything, has changed since Opulence premiered?
Christal: Since the beginning the intention has changed from singular to multiple narratives. The work is about Ali and everyone who lives a life of great purpose and does not feel the need to shirk or conform in order to reach their goals.
Charmaine: What do you hope audiences walk away with?
Christal: I want the audience to walk away knowing something about Ali that they didn't know before entering the theater and to be inspired to live a life of opulent integrity.
In the choreographer’s note from the program, Brown adds: “For me, The Opulence of Integrity is an exploration of the homogeneous inner struggle for identity as it pertains to men of color in the United States. Using the life and legacy of Muhhamad 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.” Find out more here
Aside from performing, Brown is the Founding Artistic Director of INSPIRIT, a performance ensemble and educational conglomerate dedicated to bringing female choreographers together to collaborate and show new work, expanding the views of women of all ages, and being a constant source of inspiration to its audience as well as members. Founded in 2000, INSPIRIT has been honored to show work at Aaron Davis Hall, St. Mark's Church, Joyce Soho, The Lincoln Theater of Washington, D.C., and various other venues across the country.
Combining her athleticism, creativity, love for people, and knack for teaching, Brown continues to teach and create works that redefine the art of dance and the structure of the field.
Brown is currently Assistant Professor of Dance at Middlebury College in Vermont, and has also been a resident artist of Dance New Amsterdam, Movement Research, and Tribeca Performing Arts Center.