The Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company: renewal and resistance

Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company celebrated its 45th anniversary this year. Founder Professor Rex Nettleford looks back at its history

Millennial Beings, choregraphed by Marlon Simms. Photograph courtesy NDTCNDTC dancers in Arsenio Andrade`s Afro-Cuban dance-work Congo Laye. Photograph courtesy Maria LayaconaNDTC dancers in Katrina. Photograph courtesy Maria LayaconaNDTC dancers in Rex Nettleford’s Ancestral Dance-work. Photograph courtesy Maria LayaconaPraise Songs (1989), dedicated to South African leader Nelson Mandela. In the picture are Adrian Fletcher, Tony Wilson, Deroi Rose. Photograph courtesy Jacqueline Gannie

Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company, which is nationally respected and internationally acclaimed, understands the challenge of renewal and continuity. One of the major features of performing groups, including the great sports teams of cricket, baseball, soccer and basketball, is the challenge of renewal, self-re-invention and the fact of new stars rising to replace former bright and shining ones. Succession planning is the jargon, in the corporate structure.

In its unveiling of talents it has given to Jamaica waves of such stellar performers and dance creators as Eddy Thomas, who with this author spearheaded in 1962 the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC). With them were such brightly shining personages as Barbara Requa, Sheila Barnett, and Ronan Critchlow, Bert Rose and Yvonne daCosta, the Casserly sisters (Maureen and Bridget), the Campbell sisters (Joyce and Shirley), Barry Moncrieffe (now NDTC’s associate director) and Pansy Hassan, Gertrude Sherwood and Audley Butler.

Then followed a galaxy of outstanding dance artists such as Derek Williams, Andrea Nash, Jackie Guy, Tommy Pinnock, Patsy Ricketts, Tony Wilson, Yvonne Ffrench, Noel Hall, Adrian Fletcher and Dorothy Fraser.

They were to be followed by Melanie Graham as a clear frontliner, with Denise Francis-Robinson, Carol Orane-Andrade, Jacquie Smith, MoniKa Lawrence (dancer and choreographer), Alison Symes, Sandra Minott-Phillips, Alaine Grant, Christopher Morrison, Duran Hylton and Deroi Rose giving to the company in the 1980s and early nineties a special persona and an expectation of sustained excellence and continuous exploration in the quest for the style, vocabulary and techniques(s) referred to as the “NDTC system.” Barry Moncrieffe, a teacher par excellence and the associate director, is now a major guardian and promoter of the system.

Emerging out of this phase, with widespread critical acclaim for the faithful representation of that system, having been totally trained in it, was Arlene Richards, who was to excel as costume designer and choreographer as well.

As if to remind itself of the need for continuity even in the process of renewal, the company invited back to the stage in 1984 three veteran and highly distinguished dance personalities—Sheila Barnett, Barbara Requa and Bert Rose—for limited renditions of an NDTC warhorse—Dialogue for Three. Their temporary return to the NDTC’s stage, which they once dominated and influenced for some two decades, provided the organic links in an unending process of the handing down of the best from one generation to the next.

The serious performing artist is always conscious of the debt he or she owes to those who have gone before and have made their art viable. Some years back, the NDTC honoured three “high priestesses of the Caribbean dance”—Ivy Baxter of Jamaica, Beryl McBurnie of Trinidad, and Lavinia Williams of Haiti and USA.

 

The passing of kindred souls does not mean the end of the art they share with those still living. Rather, the legacies live on despite the ephemeral nature of the art of dance itself. One is, however, conscious of the fact that continuity, exploration and innovation are the only guarantees for the enduring viability of the art. Despite one’s growing fears about the will of young Jamaicans to find their own voices and feet and to dance their own paths to excellence on their own terms, whatever the outside influences, NDTC cannot but take heart at the promise and vitality evident in the work of smaller and younger companies, and above all, in the genuine innovativeness that is displayed in the annual festival competitions, especially among the very young and teenage contestants who are direct beneficiaries of the work of NDTC and those who went before. For this, founding member Joyce Campbell must take great credit.

What emerges from the streets is no less of continuing interest. But it is the ancestral sources of energy that continue to nourish all that may be regarded as contemporary popular or as formal concert dance-art. The NDTC must continue to explore such sources and never cease to grapple with the honing of the underlying craft, while facing difficulties of resistance rooted in ambivalence about one’s own cultural legitimacy. Only so will one be able to forge forms that faithfully reflect one’s feeling and worldviews, even when fads, fashions and satellite tempt us to veer towards the easy route which spells imitation and frozen adaptation. The work goes on. More discoveries are still ahead. The very thought of this keeps the NDTC continuing and constantly renewing.

 

Many people ask, “What is the secret behind the sustainability of the NDTC?”—a voluntary group of dedicated artists, for all of over four decades. If luck is the easy answer, the real one lies in something far more substantial—in the sharing of a vision firstly by the talented, committed artists themselves, as dancers, singers, musicians and their musical director, choreographers and designers. But they could not contribute without their being served with no less dedication by people strategically placed where things are made to happen. I refer to the creative technicians (lighting directors, photographer, and stage manager, and director, wardrobe mistress) and administrators.

All have in turn been supported by an audience that has grown over three decades. Audiences comprising loyal but non-indulgent devotees both at home and abroad who have been undeterred by those who indulge a certain self-contempt driving them to the indefensible view that excellence in artistic expression resides everywhere else but at home.

The resistance to such mental enslavement which threatens renewal has been informed, happily, by a certain artistic integrity, a certain aesthetic energy and artistic vision rooted in the rich heritage of a people’s varied historical and contemporary experience over time. A generosity of spirit, the company’s willingness to share what it has with all who may wish to engage it, and a belief in self and in the amplitude of a people’s creative potential have been the guiding passion.

Such is the cause for what Lorna Goodison, the Jamaican poet, describes as the “alleluias of a defiant flowering.”

In the 2007 45th season of dance, the repertoire reflects as much renewal as it does continuity. The new-generation dancers are challenged to new works by choreographers who are their contemporaries, like Chris Walker (Variations A Ska, Hill ‘N’ Gully), Marlon Simms (Millennial Beings), Shelley-Ann Maxwell (Garvey Lives, Beneath My Skin, Cry Haiti), Oniel Pryce (Barre Talk) and the Haitian Jeanguy Saintus (Rhythme des Deux, Incantation). Saintus continues to extend the Caribbean-ness of the NDTC repertoire, as the Cuban Eduardo Rivero (Sulkari) long did, with his mentee Arsenio Andrade-Calderon adding Out of Many… to his previous Yoruba-derived Congo Layé. The company from its inception had Caribbeanised its repertoire with works like Celebrations, Carnavapanscape, and Ritual of the Sunrise by artistic director Nettleford, whose 2006 Katrina pulled New Orleans (a Caribbean entity) into the NDTC repertoire in its depiction of the 2005 tragedy.

The regional reach further reflects itself in the many suites of songs arranged by musical director Marjorie Whylie and drawn from the musical lore of the Caribbean, ranging from the Bahamas and Haiti through Jamaica and Belize to the Leeward and Windward Islands, Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana.
The empowerment of a people through the exercise of their creative imagination and intellect may well be the only real reason for living at all. And presumably the NDTC, while pursuing the dance as art, makes even more sense by aiding in the gigantic task of redefinition and rediscovery of self and society, particularly for the third millennium.

Anything other than this is minstrelsy; and minstrelsy were best left to languish in a past that invented the transatlantic slave trade, and/or be expunged from a present that would seek to exploit the consequences of slave and colonial history through continuing efforts at cultural subjugation of peoples of African ancestry in the Americas and elsewhere.

Perhaps George Lamming, the novelist and essayist and man of letters, ranks among the most lucid of commentators on the work of the NDTC generally and of the Caribbean dance specifically.

“A most banal interpretation of the Caribbean dilemma,” he once suggested, “is how to eat and remain human. On a more artistic plane, it is the search for wholeness and identity, a quest that [the NDTC] uses the dance to symbolise.”

For the dance, Lamming further explained “is a perfection of art, a ritual of co-operation, a symbol of nation-building and socialisation.” And in his own deep understanding of the dialects of the creative process, he predicts that the debate about the social relevance and artistic standards of the dance is likely to continue “until the society at large comes to terms with itself, as part of the process of decolonisation.”