Neila Ebanks: no boundaries

For Jamaican Neila Ebanks, dance is a vehicle for expressing freedom. Tanya Batson-Savage talks to the celebrated dancer and choreographer about her joy in crossing physical boundaries

Neila Ebanks performing at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Photograph by Tanya Batson-SavagePhotograph by Aeron Cargill

Neila Ebanks’s forearm is a clue to her personality. It bears the tattooed words “integrity is freedom,” an open reminder of a hard-learned but valuable lesson, on the importance of being true to yourself.

“The only way to be really free is to be aligned with what your truth is,” she says. “Not what you say it is, what you know it is.” She goes on: “It’s a way of wearing my heart on my sleeve. You meet me. You know.”

Dancer, choreographer, and academic, Ebanks is considered one of the Caribbean’s most innovative performing artists by her peers. She has performed with Jamaica’s top companies, including the National Dance Theatre Company and L’Acadco, and in Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, and the United Kingdom as well. In 2011, she earned the first dance residency under the Commonwealth Connections international programme. Her inventiveness — which includes a penchant for improvisation, and a willingness to dance beyond the stage — has won her a reputation for boldness.

“I do like the surprise element of dance appearing where people wouldn’t expect it,” Ebanks says. She has performed in Jamaica’s National Gallery, and in a patch of dirt under a blooming poinciana tree, where she was part of a living, dancing art installation with sculptor Toby Grant. She recalls another performance with fellow dancers Kofi Walker and Saffie Harriott at the bus park in Half Way Tree, Kingston, during Kingston on the Edge, an urban arts festival. She laughs as she describes the experience.

“I remember being in an inversion, being on my neck or something, and a lady walking by very calmly, looking down and telling me, ‘Mind yuh bruk yuh neck!’ And she walks on to get her bus.” But fear of breaking her neck has never daunted Ebanks — rather, it is the challenges that come from within.

Born to educators Annette and Roy Ebanks and raised in Kingston, Ebanks describes herself as a “proud only child,” a state which allowed great independence and room for her imagination to bloom. She grew comfortable with herself, learned to make friends easily, and was an active child with a voracious appetite for reading — one of her greatest pleasures besides dance.

“I would read every and anything. I would read the cornflakes box, and the toothpaste tube when I was in the bathroom. I always had to have or find something to read.” Ebanks believes this has influenced her trajectory as a dancer, opening up worlds to her. “It’s easier for me to drop into a world and then fill that world with movement, being an avid reader and a thinker,” she says.

Ebanks began dancing as a child as a form of physical therapy. In her early years, she had extreme “pigeon toe” — a medical condition in which the toes point inward. Pediatricians in the United States advised her mother to break and re-set Ebanks’s leg bones, but a Jamaican doctor suggested she take up dancing instead, to re-orient her legs.

Fortunately, Annette Ebanks listened to the local doctor. “Every time I dance, I have to give thanks for the act of dance, because it changed my body,” Ebanks says.

She started at age four, at Kings Gate Preparatory School, but a change of address brought her to Stella Maris Preparatory. There she came under the guiding influence of Dr Monika Lawrence, founder of the Stella Maris Dance Ensemble. “I didn’t even realise it was a strong beginning,” Ebanks says. “It was about the friends you were making and the physical and even emotional challenges. If I had gone somewhere else, I don’t know if dance would have found me in the way that it did, because all the conditions were perfect.”

[pullquote]“As women we are taught to hate our bodies,” Ebanks says. Dance frees you from this, allows expression, and connects the dancer with something larger. “I want to use my body in the service of other people”[/pullquote]

She explains that attending National Dance Theatre Company seasons became an annual ritual in her teenage years. Founded in 1962 under the artistic directorship of the late Rex Nettleford, the NDTC has long been considered one of the Caribbean’s premier cultural institutions. “I have programmes from every season, every year, back to back for about ten years,” Ebanks says. “I had to see Professor Nettleford and get my autographs, and go home and dance in the mirror.”

Yet while she dreamed of becoming a full-time dancer, Ebanks thought it would never happen. The determination to make this her life’s path came while she was studying sociology at the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus. Her work with the UWI Dance Society exposed her to L’Antoinette Stines, Howard Daly, and Patsy Ricketts, choreographers with international experience who made her see being a dance professional as more than a fantasy. During her first sociology exam, the famed mental lightbulb switched on, at full glare. “I decided, I don’t want to do this, I want to dance,” Ebanks says.
So she finished her sociology degree, then mapped a route to higher learning. First stop was Kingston’s Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts (where she now teaches), to secure her footing in Jamaican cultural forms. Next was the masters’ programme in physical theatre at the University of Surrey in Britain. She spent a year dancing with the NDTC, going on tour to the Bahamas, the United States, and Canada.

Meanwhile, Ebanks had begun to choreograph, and not only for herself. As a child, she had always “made up” dances — “You know, you put on concerts for your parents,” she recalled in a newspaper interview. “I’d always look forward to dance contests at birthday parties, because I’d always jump for the opportunity to dance.” In 1997 Ebanks debuted the first piece she choreographed for public performance, No Frills. It was “movement for the sake of movement,­ enjoying dance for the sake of dance.”

“Psychological, cathartic, layered” — those were the words Ebanks used to describe her choreographic work in a 2009 interview with the arts website YardEdge. “I rarely go for the easy or obvious. I find I use my choreography to grapple with and work through my own ideas about life and living.”

Often that has meant exploring questions about the physical body — hers and others. “There is a way in which we are taught to separate ourselves from our bodies, and particularly as women we are taught to hate our bodies,” she says, adding that dance frees you from this, allows expression, and connects the dancer with something larger. “I want to use my body in the service of other people.”

It explains her fondness for her piece In Honour of Locks With Keys and Coupons to My Heart, which expresses her decision to follow her own path with dance, and explores her issues with her legs, and the notion of the “ideal” body-type for a dancer. She notes that the wistful quirkiness that marked some of her earlier pieces is now absent from her work. “I guess I take life too seriously now,” she whispers, as though we are co-conspirators. “I choreograph from my experience, and I guess I’ve been looking too much at the serious issues that are around, and not seeing enough the joy and fun that is also there.”

She finds herself at a crossroads, as she contemplates whether at her age — thirty-seven — and with a little more body mass than she used to have, she should continue to dance, or shift focus. But she remains certain that, for her, dance is liberating. “There is always a level of flight, a level of boundarilessness that I go through,” she says. And Ebanks sees the joy of dance as an important gift to the Caribbean, embodying the region’s spirit.

“There is a joy, even within the keening and wailing, within the death observances, there is a joy that we forget,” she says, “because we are so caught up in other Western ways, the bottom dollar, the hardships, the social realities.

“I think dance can offer the Caribbean a memory. It can remind us of that enduring thing that is in our spirits that makes us able to manage and thrive.”