Nicole de Weever: dancing with the stars

Nicole de Weever is treading the boards on Broadway, in the hit musical Fela. Judy Fitzpatrick met her at home in St Maarten

–Nicole de Weever (centre) with actor Will Smith (left) and co-producer Jada Pinkett Smith at the grand opening of Fela. Photograph courtesy Nicole de Weever

Nicole de Weever is a woman of many talents: dance, drama and song. But of the three, the most fulfilling is her first passion – dance. De Weever has danced her way from St Maarten to New York.

There she is among the cast of the Broadway show Fela, a musical based on the life and music of Nigerian performer, composer and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Rated by the New York Times as one of the top ten shows on Broadway in 2009, Fela opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway in November 2009. It takes its audience into the extravagant, rebellious world of the Afrobeat legend. Using his pioneering music – a blend of jazz, funk, African rhythm and harmonies – Fela explores Kuti’s controversial life as artist, political activist and revolutionary musician. The show is produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z.

Fela is the 30-year-old de Weever’s biggest professional accomplishment on stage to date. She says appearing in the musical is about much more than the lights and glamour.

“I am honoured to be a cast member not just because it’s a hit show on Broadway, but because of what it stands for and the message that it brings. It is not just entertainment. We are educating and changing the face of musical theatre. On stage we are able to address extremely important political and social issues that are negatively affecting Africa, past and present.”

De Weever has always loved dance, a passion that her parents supported by enrolling her in the Motiance Dance School in St Maarten, where ballet was her forte.

“Dancing has always been a part of my life, from since I was a young girl. I have always been very passionate about movement, in general, even on a social level, and beyond the room of a dance class or studio. Expressing myself without words had always moved me.”

She moved to the US in 1995 and went to high school in Virginia before moving on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Fairfax Ballet in Virginia. She lives in Harlem, New York.

Though she’s in a big city where competition is stiff, De Weever has worked consistently as a dancer, singer and actress in her adopted home. She has also choreographed for schools and festivals in Manhattan, though her main focus is on performing. She’s performed at the Afro Pop Hall of Fame Awards, Audelco Awards, Black Film Festival, Dance Africa and the West Side Story world tour, and has worked with choreographers such as Bill T Jones, Joey Mc Kneely, George Faison, Rob Ashford, Maria Torres, Abdel Salaam and Jamel Gaines. She has also been the featured dancer on a PBS special, Dancing with Life, and has performed with companies such as Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, Creative Outlet of Brooklyn, Prophecy Dance Works, Seventh Principles, and Ballet Noir.

She says her most inspirational moment was working with the late Katherine Dunham in her codified technique documentary, Preserving American Dance History, which can be seen in the Library of Congress Museum. De Weever has also told her story in a Fox prime-time special, Accomplishing the American Dream, which aired in April. She was honoured as a cultural ambassador by the government of St Maarten in 2009 for bringing greater prestige and name-recognition to her homeland.

These days, when the dancing shoes come off, de Weever gets caught up with her new toy, an acoustic guitar. She also works at the Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn, a non-profit organisation that reaches out to children in inner-city public schools.
Being on the big stage in a big city doesn’t mean de Weever has forgotten her roots. She visits home – the 16-square-mile Dutch Caribbean island of St Maarten – as often as her schedule permits, and has fond memories of her homeland.

“I remember singing out loud with my mother as we drove home after her long days at work. She would always pick me up from my grandmother’s late in the afternoon and we would drive home together, sometimes singing her favourite hymns. I’m sure this memory will make her smile. It puts a smile on my face.

“I also remember going fishing with my father early Saturday mornings, pulling fish pots down in Oyster Pond… remember walking up Front Street with my sister Angelique. I would hold her hand as she would take me to dance class in the afternoon. My hands were small enough at that time to fit perfectly in hers. Those are the moments that I treasure.”

While she enjoys the fruits of her labour in the big city, De Weever hopes to return to St Maarten eventually to develop a magnet high-school programme for the visual and performing arts, to serve St Maarten and the wider Caribbean.

De Weever says while big cities like New York are the mecca for performing and visual artists and offer numerous opportunities, youngsters from small Caribbean islands should not give up hope. She thinks it’s beneficial to move into a new environment to develop as a performer or a person. But she also says: “I am a living example of how possible it really is. I believe the size of the country or island that you are from does not place a limit on what you can achieve.”