The COCO Dance Festival: opening the dancescape

When four choreographers decided to launch a new contemporary dance festival — with three weeks’ notice — no one guessed it would change Trinidad’s cultural landscape. Nazma Muller follows the evolution of the COCO Dance Festival, and finds out how it’s boosted the careers of a new generation of dancers and choreographers

Scan (2009), a performance choreographed and performed by COCO co-founder Dave Williams. Photograph by Jeffery ChockTroublefree (2012), choreographed by Anika Marcelle. Photograph by Karen JohnstoneMan (2012), choreographed by Heather Henderson-Gordon. Photograph by Karen JohnstoneSonja Dumas. Photograph by Mark LyndersayDave Williams. Photograph by Mark LyndersayNancy Herrera. Photograph by Mark LyndersayNicole Wesley. Photograph by Mark LyndersayA performance by Trinidadian choreographer Sonja Dumas’s dance company, Continuum. Photograph by Mark LyndersayMy Other Me (2011), choreographed by Bridgette Wilson. Photograph by Karen Johnstone

“She mad?” someone asks in the background. On screen, in the YouTube video, Binahkaye Joy is barefoot, dressed in jeans and a pink top, and she is dancing — to no audible music — in the Tunapuna Market on Trinidad’s Eastern Main Road. None of the vendors or shoppers takes any notice of the dancer from Washington, DC, as she twirls and twists, bends and breakdances in time to the rhythmic clang of metal coming from some unseen source.

Not content to risk being carted off in a straitjacket, the visionary “space activator” — as she describes herself — decided to take her dancing to the streets. As part of the 2010 COCO Dance Festival’s “Moving Movement Museum”, Joy danced along the pavement in Woodbrook, west Port of Spain, followed by a small crowd as she whirled and leaped. Cars slowed down and passersby gaped as Joy, a self-declared “liberated booty coach,” paused and wined back limbo-style, doing what Jamaicans call the Bogle.

This unnerving, interactive type of contemporary “street art” is what COCO Dance Festival — the name is short for Contemporary Choreographers Collective — is all about. The festival started in 2009 in typical Trini fashion, when dancer and choreographer Sonja Dumas approached fellow veteran choreographers Dave Williams, Nancy Herrera, and Nicole Wesley with the insane idea of taking over the dates booked at the Queen’s Hall performance centre by the National Dance Association — the organisation was unable to stage its annual show due to a lack of funds — just three weeks before the opening night.

Dumas was well aware of the NDA’s funding problems. Despite being the birthplace of the late, legendary Beryl McBurnie and Dai Ailian, “Mother of Chinese Modern Dance,” Trinidad and Tobago has never given its dancers (indeed, some would says its artists on a whole) the sort of financial recognition and support that their counterparts elsewhere in the Caribbean enjoy. While the world’s most acclaimed male ballet dancer, Carlos Acosta, can point to the Cuban National Ballet as the source of his training, and the National Dance Theatre Company in Jamaica carries on the legacy of the late Rex Nettleford, Kumina king and Oxford-educated “don”, T&T’s dancers and choreographers have no national dance company or arts council on which to depend for funding.

With just three weeks in which to put together a festival that would showcase contemporary movement, when there had never been such a thing in Trinidad, most people would not even have entertained the thought of trying to pull it off. But Dumas, Williams, Herrera, and Wesley are a formidable quartet. And with more than a century of collective dance experience among them, the COCO Dance Festival has grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years.

“COCO has evolved from the hastily arranged show that happened by default, and is now an annual dance festival in which many established and emerging artists aspire to participate,” explains Dumas. “I’m always excited about each installation of the festival, since every year there is a different, diverse menu of dance, and I get to see what young members of the dance community have to offer. So far,” she adds, “we have been blessed with a high level of interest from the artistic community and tremendously committed artists who want to showcase their work in the most professional way possible.”

Some younger dance practitioners have found the festival transformative. For Anika Marcelle, COCO was a dream come true. She has participated every year since its inception, and loves the annual challenge to stretch herself as a choreographer. “COCO has been a pretty cool nurturing family,” she says. “Every year you see familiar faces, and you get to see firsthand how each artist is growing and developing. You also get a glimpse of emerging artists exploring their own creative voice. It’s important for artists to remain connected and grounded. COCO provides that.”

Afiya Huggins is grateful that COCO gave her the confidence to put a piece she created on stage, and the opportunity to present it in a formal setting. “It gave me the chance to apply theoretical knowledge about all other production elements, such as lighting, costuming, etc,” she says. “Receiving valuable feedback from mentors and older, more experienced choreographers is always beneficial. And just being surrounded by other young choreographers and dance enthusiasts, I had the opportunity to learn so much, it opened up my mind in terms of how to approach my work.” Huggins says many non-dancers who attend the shows are amazed at what the dance community in Trinidad can produce.

The sentiment is seconded by Bridgette Wilson, rehearsal director of the Metamorphosis Dance Company and the first recipient of the COCO Dance Festival Choreographer’s Award. “COCO has been the platform for the premiere and early stages of some of my most thought-provoking works,” she says. Wilson’s duet My Other Me has only ever been performed at COCO. It tells the story of a young girl fighting an internal battle of self-discovery and acceptance. And Trinidad-based Canadian Jacob Cino, who performed at COCO in 2012 and 2013, says, “If the festival didn’t exist, I don’t see a venue that would allow me to showcase the kind of contemporary dance work that I do.” The multi-disciplinary artist specialises in contact improvisation and African forms, and also composes electronic music for clubs, film, and contemporary dance. “COCO is growing the dance scene here to include a wider spectrum of what is dance,” Cino explains. “Not just folk, soca, and ballet/modern, which is the majority of dance that I see here, but dance that challenges our ideas and concepts of what art is.”

Jamaican choreographer Neila Ebanks, who took part in COCO 2011 as a guest performer, was humbled by the warm reception from audiences, other participants, and organisers. “There was a palpable excitement in the theatre space during rehearsals and performances, and it went hand-in-hand with an effusive sense of community and support,” she recalls. A full-time lecturer at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Ebanks says she welcomed the chance to “experience other Caribbean bodies communicating through contemporary dance languages and engaging cross-cultural dialogues through the ever-evolving ‘body talk.’” She adds, “I was very impressed with the choreographic work on show and with the level of skill evidenced by the Trinidadian dancers. I continue to be excited about COCO’s presence in the Caribbean “dancescape,” because it carves a space for more experimental and contemporary dance expressions, which are critical to our region’s cultural, artistic and social development.”

So by some miracle — or perhaps thanks to very hard work and talent — the COCO Dance Festival is now part of the cultural calendar of the Caribbean. But in order to make this much-needed exploration and exposition of contemporary Trinidadian talent sustainable, it needs more financial support and greater audience numbers. “We present this festival on a shoestring budget every year, which is not the ideal situation,” Dumas points out. “In general, independent dance projects tend to get the least amount of support — perhaps because dance is seen as esoteric or abstract or non-verbal, or maybe because many consider social dancing enough dance for them.

“But dance has such a transformative, often civilising power,” she continues, “allowing people to dance through their fears or dance into their aspirations, and allowing those in the audience to see artistry at its best and to consider different points of view. I’m hopeful that people will come and support the show, and that potential sponsors will see the benefits of contributing to COCO in the future.”

 

Sonja Dumas is a performer, producer, choreographer, writer, and arts development consultant. A graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Business School, she is also one of the founding educators and administrators of the dance programme at the Academy for the Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago.

“As a Caribbean person, I live and work in a region that is still, relatively speaking, culturally young and highly dynamic, where re-examining our past and shaping our present is still very much a part of the fabric. I work towards reflecting that contemporary energy in my choreography.”

 

Dave Williams is a multi-media performer and choreographer, and an advertising consultant by day.

“While researching for a performance in the 1990s, I discovered two things about [the Hindu deity] Lord Shiva. The universe is said to be a result of him dancing. When he finds a rhythm that inspires him, he dances. After he’s danced all he can to this rhythm, he stops and destroys everything. He waits for a new rhythm. Then he starts again. Second, most Shiva statues show him dancing, balancing over a dwarf demon — the conquering of ignorance. Sometimes we dance, sometimes we wait . . .”

 

Nancy Herrera is the artistic director of the Metamorphosis Dance Company. A graduate of the London College of Dance and Drama and the holder of a MPhil in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies, she has been involved in every facet of dance culture in Trinidad and Tobago — from performance and choreography to technical theatre, Carnival, opera, steel pan, special needs dance education, and pre-professional dance training.

“Metamorphosis was envisioned as a dance crucible in an evolving society. You get out what you put in, transformed by a creative process driven by passion and commitment to excellence.”

 

Nicole Wesley is an associate professor of dance at Texas Tech University. Her research and choreographic interests include community building through authentic performance (the JUSTICE Project) and Laban Movement Analysis as a methodology in the realm of technical training and performance process.

“Being involved with COCO and its continued development has greatly influenced me as an artist. Because of the directing role I play, I have to be aware and accountable for my choices as a dancemaker. I want to continue to challenge myself and be conscious of the work I am making . . . and most of all, what my motivation is behind the work I am creating.”

 

The sixth edition of the COCO Dance Festival runs from 19 September to 5 October, 2014, with performances at Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain from 3 to 5 October. For more information, visit COCO Dance Festival on Facebook.