Rex Nettleford on Keeping “Caribbeanness” Alive In Dance

Rex Nettleford celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Jamaica National Dance Theatre

Ritual of the Sunrise, choreographed by Rex  Nettleford. Photograph by Denis ValentineBlood Canticles, choreographed by Rex Nettleford. Photograph by Denis ValentineFootprints, choreographed by Monika Lawrence. Photograph by Denis ValentineGerrehbenta, based on Jamaican “dead-yard” ceremonies; choreographed by Rex Nettleford. Photograph by Denis ValentinePraise Songs, dedicated to South African leader Nelson Mandela. Photograph by Jacqueline GannieRex Nettleford, NDTC’s “moving spirit”, co-founder and current Artistic Director, in the lead role of Myal. Photograph by Maria Layacona

The question is often asked: how does a dance company in the languorous Caribbean survive four decades without a single one of its membership (dancers, singers, musicians and creative technicians) getting paid, and still receive wide international acclaim and command considerable respect at home (meaning both Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean)? As the many who are stupefied by the Jamaica National Dance Theatre Company’s (NDTC) longevity suggest, this is unique in the world of dance theatre, and unusual, especially, in the Caribbean, where sprinting is often preferred to long-distance running.

I see the answer in the long-established Jamaican tradition of voluntarism, which dates back to the immediate post-Emancipation period. At that time, people fled the sugar estates and found new form and purpose in freedom by building villages, shaping institutions and crafting cultural expressions which had started to take shape a good 200 or so years before.

Such expressions are the source of energy for the continuing creative output not only of Jamaica, but also of the entire Caribbean — whether it be the calypso of Trinidad, St Lucian zouk, mento and reggae from Jamaica, or the storytelling traditions found all over the region. Add to this the Babel of creole tongues that range from Sranan Tonga in Suriname and Papiamentu in Curaçao to Kweyol throughout the French islands and Jamaica Talk. Add to this the range of ancestral religions, like Cuba’s Santeria, Trinidad’s Shango or Brazil’s Candomblé with their orishas, Haitian Voodoo with its panoply of gods, Jamaica’s Kumina and its praise of kikongo ancestors, and the syncretised forms from Zion revivalism to modern-day Spiritual Baptists. Then one can perhaps understand why an entity as serious as the NDTC is about the Caribbean’s deep heritage has had to keep exploring, experimenting, and “divining” for whatever will lead to and sustain liberation and self-definition. An ex-slave society and colonial outpost would desire no less.

The NDTC was founded in 1962 at the time of Jamaica’s Independence, after 307 years of continuous  British colonial rule. Without ever submitting to a dry social realism, the group has set out to find a true and faithful expression of self and society through the creative use of the body, the very instrument which has given West Indians an identity in the form of West Indies cricket. Like the cricketers, the dance ensemble has toured extensively overseas — to former “Mother” Britain, to be sure, but the NDTC has also appeared repeatedly in the United States and Canada, in Germany and Finland, in the old USSR and Australia, as well as in Latin America, the Commonwealth Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Martinique.

The NDTC’s “Caribbeanness” is undisputed, but the expression of universality in its depiction of common concerns of the human condition has given it borderless access to hundreds of thousands of people all over the globe. A London critic recently regretted the fact that an enthusiastic London audience embraced the NDTC so avidly that she found it difficult to “critically locate” the Jamaican dance company, which went on to captivate audiences in Sheffield, Birmingham and Canterbury. This was its fourth British tour since 1965, when the company first established its international reputation at the Commonwealth Arts Festival. A New York critic once described the NDTC as “a Caribbean dance company with a modern dance impulse”. And the NDTC is certainly modern. In fact it is pre-modern, modern and post-modern all in one.

The company’s diverse repertoire demands versatile dancers who speak to this multilayered characteristic. An evening with the NDTC, whether at the City Center in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Brooklyn Centre for the Performing Arts, the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, the South Bank Theatre in London, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa or the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, usually occasions widespread critical acclaim for the company’s capturing of the essence of Jamaican and Caribbean life. This it does, with more than a hint of the mix of cultures colliding over centuries on Native American soil, preserving the dynamic of an existence in constant motion, yet without doing violence to the regulative elements that make it specifically Jamaican and Caribbean.

Various connections have been significant in the company’s development. The entire Caribbean, which of course shares common roots, is one obvious connection. Trinidad and Tobago has enriched the NDTC’s dance repertoire and the suites of songs rendered by the NDTC Singers. Carnavapanscape and Ritual of the Sunrise, with its finale to David Rudder’s High Mas, immediately come to mind. But the Trini connection dates back to Beryl McBurnie’s Little Carib, which served as inspiration; and the early Jamaica dance movement drew on McBurnie’s passionate commitment to the notion that there is something called “Caribbean dance”. Traditional songs like Lillian and Mango by Olive Walke have challenged the NDTC Singers to novel West Indian vocal arrangements.

The Haitian connection found expression in the years NDTC founding members spent studying under Lavinia Williams, the famed protégé of Katherine Dunham, who forged a technique out of Haitian voodoo rites and taught it at summer schools on the UWI Mona Campus for many years. A more recent connection is with Cuban Yoruba culture, yet another variation of Africa’s encounter with Europe on West Indian soil. Sulkari, by Jamaica-born Cuban choreographer Eduardo Rivero, expanded the dance-theatre vocabulary of the NDTC, so that by the time his student Arsenio Andrade joined the company, the Jamaicans were ready for his Congo Laye. The connection continues to reflect the close ties between Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, which all established diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba back in the 1970s. The NDTC was the proud recipient of the first Maurice Bishop Award from the Casa de las Americas, later taking the prestigious Gold Musgrave Medal and the Prime Minister’s Award in its native Jamaica. The company now enjoys the status of Artist-in-Residence at New York’s Brooklyn College.

The wider Caribbean connection has extended in more recent times to Brazil, when Brazilian Ode entered the repertoire, prompted by the rich manifestations of African continuities in that country, notably in Bahia, which is currently enjoying a passionate love affair with Jamaican popular music, especially the work of Jimmy Cliff of The Harder They Come fame, who lives in Salvador for half of each year. Across the Atlantic in South Africa, from the days of apartheid to the present, the NDTC has drawn on the music of Nbogeni (Dream on Squatters Mountain) and Abdullah Ibrahim (Blood Canticles), as well as on other African voices like Baaba Maal (Interconnexions) and Letta Mbulu (The Crossing).

Such ancestral resonances abound in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, and this particular connection communicates and educates while it entertains thousands of patrons who flock to the Little Theatre in Kingston each season, as well as to the theatres of the region. The NDTC’s main choreographers are Eddy Thomas, Neville Black, Sheila Barnett, Barbara Requa, Bert Rose, Barry Moncrieffe, Clive Thompson, Gene Carson, Arlene Richards, Monika Lawrence, Tony Wilson, Joyce Campbell and myself, as artistic director.

Among the company’s vast repertoire are the dance-works Kumina (depicting ancestor worship, a kikongo rite), Gerrehbenta (a suite of dead-yard ceremonies still extant in Jamaica), Pocomania (based on a spirit-possession ritual), Plantation Revelry (utilising the masquerade dances of Jonkonnu, one of Jamaica’s major festival arts), Married Story, Folkforms and Drumscore (based on the rhythms and dance-forms of Jamaican traditional lore). Similarly, a host of songs, from mento, dancing tunes, ring-games and brucking party tunes, through sankey, revival hymns and contemporary reggae, inform the separate repertoire of the NDTC Singers led by musical director Marjorie Whylie, and enhance the wide-ranging collection of dances rooted in Jamaican and Caribbean life.

The dance company predated the arrival of reggae on the Caribbean cultural scene, but the two forms of Jamaican expression soon got together, with the company creating dance-works celebrating the genius first of Jimmy Cliff (Tribute to Cliff), then of Bob Marley (Court of Jah), Toots Hibbert (Backlash), Peter Tosh and Burning Spear (Children of Mosiah), and more recently the dancehall prince Buju Banton (Bujurama).

The NDTC has other connections. The connection with the rest of the Americas via jazz is unquestionable, and the company’s repertoire resonates with jazz sounds and syncopated rhythms, as well as spirituals and contemporary gospel. And the less strong presence of India in Jamaican cultural life (than, say, in Trinidad and Guyana) does not exclude from the repertoire the movement and music of Hosay, the Caribbean Muslim festival art which is still extant in parts of Jamaica. (For Jamaicans the Indian presence is more commonly integrated into Pocomania/Revivalism, when an “Indian spirit” possesses a devotee of whatever race, and he or she dances to the beat of the tassa drum.) The NDTC, however, went beyond this, and in 1995 added the very Indian Mayur to its repertoire, in tribute to the l50th anniversary of the arrival of East Indians into Jamaica and into indentureship.

 

Theatre groups are successful only when they operate on the basis of teamwork and creative mobilisation of complementary skills. The NDTC is no exception. The company uses this important fact to justify its goal of making the performing arts part of the curriculum at all levels of Caribbean education. The performers (all unpaid) are supported by an equally voluntary crew of creative technicians (lighting and sound directors, stage manager and wardrobe mistress) and administrators, as well as company photographers who record the “tale” for annual brochures, books and promotional literature. The membership has included university students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, farmers, clerks, receptionists, managers, supervisors, secretaries, computer analysts, radio engineers and accountants.

The NDTC, besides performing and developing an identifiable Caribbean dance vocabulary, technique and style, has made sure to create a friendly environment for dance and dance-theatre. It has facilitated the founding of the Jamaica School of Dance, which offers training to people from all over the region in addition to summer sessions for American and British students. Its research projects have resulted in publications and continuing work in the field, while its community outreach through the annual arts festival in Jamaica has served to spread the word and build audiences for itself and the many smaller groups that have mushroomed not only in Jamaica but in Barbados, Guyana, the Bahamas, Dominica and Belize.

The Jamaican National Dance Theatre Company at 40 still has a way to go, its members like to say, even while lapping up the plaudits of audiences and critics at home and abroad. The words of a reviewer in the November 2001 edition of the prestigious UK publication Dancing Times sums it up nicely:

 

It is, on the one hand, a great wonder that so small an island has produced so remarkable a company. It is on the other no wonder at all. For the cultures of Africa and of Europe have come together in a unique way on this island. African dancers chose to celebrate pelvic movements because the centre of the body — from which further life springs — is sacred. European dancers, in contrast, chose, under the influence of Christianity, to censure pelvic movement and celebrate instead bodily composure and possibilities of flowing peripheral movements, and extended footwork. Jamaican dancers who have worked to absorb both traditions can ripple like snakes and promenade like flamingoes. Their dances can vibrate with power and float with decorum . . . Dance companies capable of delivering such life-informing and life-embracing messages are rare.

 

It was St Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott who once described a work by the NDTC as “older than revolution”, and it is Kamau Brathwaite, the iconic Barbadian poet-historian, who reminded his Caribbean compatriots and the world some time ago that “the Jamaican National Dance Theatre Company was born as Jamaica was re-born and has lived the stark sonorous destruction and renewal of the dream that the Caribbean has been involved in since 1962, since 1865, since 1834, since 1492 [and] as such it is the avatar and living monument to those countless, voiceless millions dead who made their mark unmarked before this could be so . . .”

 

Professor Rex Nettleford — a founder, the artistic director and principal choreographer of the NDTC — is also the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and a former Rhodes Scholar.