Rex Nettleford: “Running a university is like running a dance company”

Rex Nettleford, founder of the Jamaica National Dance Theatre Company and former vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies

Rex Nettleford in 1965. Photograph by Maria LaYacona

At the risk of romanticising a little, I do treasure very much the fact of my growing up in rural Jamaica. I was born in Falmouth, Trelawny, and it’s interesting, because Falmouth is the capital of the parish of Trelawny, which is in the county of Cornwall — it’s very Cornish, you know.

My name is Nettleford, which I like to say must have been taken off a zinc pan. There was a foundry in Cornwall, which of course exported nails during slavery, and I suspect they probably exported the big zinc pan with which we were brought up — that’s what we bathed in.

One of my forebears must have come across this marvellous name, Nettleford . . . and it’s not Nettleford . . . Nettlefold is a common name in Cornwall, but it’s F-O-L-D, so it must have changed, you know how language is. When I went to school in England they would always get the name wrong — “Nettlefold” — because that’s the name, Nettleford isn’t known. So I take great pride in saying that — with a little bit of tongue in cheek, of course.

So I was born in Falmouth in rural Jamaica, and then I went to the hinterland — a typical Jamaican sociological phenomenon — to my grandmother, you know, no father, that whole thing. I’ve just been reading an article about Father’s Day without fathers, but interestingly that has never been a problem, it has produced no psychological problem for me, because I went into a situation where of course every adult male treated me like a surrogate son or nephew — which is the village. In all extended families this is what happens, it’s not Caribbean-specific at all — in an extended family everybody takes responsibility for the child. So I have courtesy nieces and nephews a-plenty. It is common for me now, all my friends’ children are my nephews and nieces, and you take care of them, you are interested in their education and so on, because that’s how I grew up.

So I grew up with my grandmother in Bunker’s Hill, in the hinterland of Falmouth. It was a serious serious serious serious village — family, church, school — so I grew up in a situation where in fact you had those fundamental institutions working in tandem — the school, the church, the family — and in fact they saw eye to eye. Which was wonderful, and that has served to inform my own view of life, my sense of self, my view of the world, and above all to appreciate the whole thing of working with other people, so nothing that I’ve achieved has been achieved solo. I would never be brash enough to want to make exaggerated claims for myself. Everything that I’ve done has been part and parcel of co-ordinated social action.

All of that I learned in the co-operative labour which we had to give — each neighbour had to help the other, so as a child you grew up going to the fields very early in the morning to help somebody else plant their produce. The reaping of the produce, particularly corn, I remember, and the bushelling of the corn. We grew everything — bananas, corn, ground provisions, chicken — the interesting thing is we took the eggs to market, we never ate them. Another interesting thing: where I grew up, women did the farming — women farmed — for the small cash crops and so on. The men would go to the mountain, as we called it, for the bananas.

All the children had to take part in all of this, and this is how I grew up. Notions of child labour were nonsense. For me, the child was the adult writ small, and you were really being prepared to be an adult. You know, when you look back on it, it really was not hardship. I remember having to carry stones from the quarry at one end of the little farm we had to the other, and my tray grew bigger the stronger and the older I got. It’s like going to fetch water from the river in kerosene tins. We all did it, but it was communal in the best sense of the term, so this has followed me through life — being in the performing arts, for example. It probably made sense why I didn’t become a writer or a painter or even a sculptor, which I regard as personal arts, but the performing arts with their mobilisation of people was a more communal thing. So something like the dance, the National Dance Theatre Company, speaks to that kind of preparation.

And this of course makes sense even in running a university. Well, running a university is indeed like running a dance company or theatre group, because everybody’s a star, and you better understand that. Your academic colleagues, they’re not reporting to you, they’re your colleagues. And this is something that I’ve felt very strongly about, and then of course I was prepared for it even before I became vice chancellor, because I was head of extra-mural, the School of Continuing Studies, a far-flung empire, where for every decision you take there are points of reference outside yourself, and you have to take these into consideration. And then for all the viceroys called resident tutors out there in the different territories throughout the Caribbean, you have to understand that they have to be in charge in a very real sense.

So instead of being a supervisor I liked the idea of being a co-ordinator, and I learned a great deal from that, so that early life is very important. And it is rural Jamaica — the whole thing of seeing trees grow — that’s another thing, you know, I am very wary of all these Kingston kids, urban kids who don’t see trees grow except for that little one that can be planted in a butter pan and grow overnight — dried and exported or used. No, no, I had to wait on the coconut tree to grow before it could bear, but at the same time there’s another thing that I learned — the notion of multi-cropping, where you grow, say, peas underneath the growing tree and it gives nitrogen to the soil, enriches the soil. So I learned that you can do more than one thing at the same time. I mean, even compost heaps, there’s no wastage, you can transform the thing into fertiliser, all that I learned from very early. And this indeed has affected considerably my own life, my sense of self, my view of the world, and my coping skills.

As far as the dance is concerned, I found that when it came to the use of the master’s language, I could write good compositions, although I had my strong dialect in rural Jamaica. I spoke that at home, but when I had to speak to someone in authority I switched to standard English, I wrote my compositions — all right, I got my marks, that’s fine — but it was really using somebody else’s tools. My body is my own, that I can use, I have a kind of control over it, and even when I may be fertilising the use of it by borrowings from elsewhere, it is my soil, not anybody else’s.

So, you know, the power of the body, it’s your instrument, it doesn’t belong to anybody else, and you can use it to carve designs in space — by which I mean create a vocabulary. I learned from early that just a turn of the head, the drop of a shoulder, can say a thousand words.

In any case, the whole Caribbean for me is so dialectical that you’re constantly negotiating your space, you know, in different polar positions, which is exciting, it makes life very dynamic, tiring — as Derek Walcott says, wearying. But I feel that we in the Caribbean have had some five hundred years of experience — historical and existential reality — and it is our responsibility in a university like the University of the West Indies to find the appropriate ontology, the appropriate cosmology, and by extension the appropriate epistemology.