They call her Noble

Trinidadian dancer Noble Douglas trained with the best and in turn has trained the best

A poster advertising a 1978 performance. Photograph courtesy Adèle BynoeA scene from Revival (1981), choreographed by Douglas. Photograph by Jeffrey ChockDouglas (left) leads her dancers in a rehearsal of Lament for Women Only, 1980. Photograph courtesy Adèle BynoeDouglas with drama teacher Wendell Manwarren and members of the Lilliput Children`s Theatre backstage. Photograph by Marlon RouseDouglas with Tony Hall, co-founder of the Lilliput Children`s Theatre, 1970s. Photograph courtesy Adéle BynoeLament for Women Only (1980) Front Heather Henderson Back Nadine Mose, Adèle Bynoe, Crestel de Souza, Noble Douglas. Photograph courtesy Adèle BynoeNoble backstage at Queen`s Hall, Trinidad during the annual production of the Lilliput Children`s Theatre. Photograph by Marlon RouseNoble Douglas. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Trinidad’s Noble Douglas

Noble Douglas is dancing. She skips around the room on dainty feet in soft leather shoes, toes pointed. She’s teaching a class, and they’ve paused to recall a routine. This is how she remembers, by dancing out the memory, the steps and the rhythms that her muscles and bones have learned by long practice and repetition.

She doesn’t keep it up for long, though. The years haven’t been kind to this dancer’s body: hip surgery has left her with a limp and she has to sit to teach, gesturing with elegant, bejewelled hands. She can’t help moving to the rapso music on the tape, though. She snaps her fingers, taps her toes. “Use your back to support yourself, not your hand on the floor,” she tells one dancer. “Allyuh look like you have stiff neck,” she admonishes them all.

This class is for members of her company, some of whom have been with her for decades. But like all dancers, they have to begin from the beginning, with basic stretches, working up to a more demanding routine. They go through their moves with a patience they’ve learned from Douglas.

At 62, she too might almost be starting from scratch.

This is a woman who trained at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, at its sister school in London, and at the London College of Dance and Drama, and worked with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Returning to Trinidad, she was a leader of the dance company that was part of Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW), where she also acted and choreographed. She founded another seminal group with Carol La Chapelle in 1978, and when the La Chapelle–Douglas Dance Company split up, started her own company, now 23 years old.

As a teacher, Douglas was among the first to introduce the Graham technique to Trinidad. Her school for dance and drama, and the dance company named after her, have produced some of the country’s leading performers, some of whom still work here, while others have made a name for themselves overseas.

Here at home, though, the golden age of dance is over. The Noble Douglas Dance Company hasn’t staged a show of its own in years. The room where she’s taking her dancers through their paces is on borrowed premises, at a government junior school in the centre of Port of Spain. It’s early evening and the sun is low—luckily, since there’s no air-conditioning. There are two good things about this room: it has wire mesh panels instead of glass windows, so it’s fairly cool; and it has a wooden floor.

Amazingly, Douglas is grateful to have this space, where she works six days a week, teaching classes from beginners to veterans. This is her vocation.

“I think I’m a really first-class teacher,” she says with what sounds like an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, until she adds, “Well, I never grew up, eh, so I can relate to those children. Big people too. I thoroughly enjoy it.”

Douglas herself was the last of six children, 12 years younger than her youngest brother. She was born in Woodbrook—a middle-class suburb of Port of Spain that has nurtured much of Trinidad’s artistic talent—on Carlos Street, a few blocks from where she lives now, in a house left to her by her mother, and filled with furniture also passed on from her family. Her father was a pharmacist; it was from her mother, a florist and caterer, that Douglas inherited her creativity. She took piano and ballet classes from the age of eight. But it wasn’t until she was sent to Canada for her final year of high school that she decided to study dance, after performing in two musicals and taking modern dance classes as well as ballet.

She did a teaching diploma, and it was only afterwards that she thought perhaps she had enough talent to become a professional dancer. She spent another year in London, and did some work in television, including a Liberace show.

Then, in 1969, she moved to New York: she could stay with one of her sisters, who lived there, and she had some contacts in the city, having met leading dancers from Martha Graham’s and Alvin Ailey’s companies in London. Still, she had to do some waitressing to make ends meet. She remembers a year when she worked the 11 pm–7 am shift in a bank, key-punching, then went to a 10 am class at the Martha Graham School. It was tough in other ways too: Douglas isn’t nearly as mild as her round, cheery face and easy-going manner suggest, and she had to learn to bite her tongue and not respond to criticism or abuse.

“When I started,” she says, “there weren’t too many black dancers.” But there were some advantages in that; she says self-deprecatingly, “They needed token blacks.” In 1974 she came home, as she’d always planned to do.

 

“We were on the ground!” remembers Adèle Bynoe, one of Douglas’s first students. “Not at the barre.” For Bynoe, trained in ballet, the Graham technique that Douglas taught was “totally new. We’d danced in ballet shoes—for this you had no shoes, you could feel the floor. Ballet was strict, but this allowed you the flexibility to use your body in a different way that we hadn’t been shown before.”

Graham, an American who was named Dancer of the Century by Time magazine in 1998, had developed techniques that used the basic principles of contraction and release with the aim of increasing the “emotional activity of the dancer’s body,” through movements that were more jagged, angular and direct than those of classical dance.

Bynoe and other young local dancers took to the Graham style easily. “We were young and supple, we were enthusiastic.” Bynoe was enthusiastic enough to become a founder member of the three dance companies that Douglas has led.

Douglas taught adults twice a week at Beryl McBurnie’s Folk House. She hadn’t worked with McBurnie before—because of McBurnie’s involvement with folk dance and the steelband, Douglas’s parents hadn’t considered her and her Little Carib Theatre respectable enough to let their daughter dance there before she went away to study. Later, Douglas worked with McBurnie on a few productions for the pre-Carnival Dimanche Gras show, but she still regrets not having worked with her more. (They came from different disciplines, though: “I’m not versed in folk dance,” Douglas explains, “but over time my work has been quite influenced by it, from going to shows and classes. I can teach folk contemporary.”)

The Caribbean School of Dancing, where she had learned as a girl, also asked her to teach, and eventually she rented space from them and started her own classes. In 1975 the Lilliput Children’s Theatre was born, with playwright and director Tony Hall running the drama department. Douglas didn’t only teach there—every afternoon she would drive around picking up her pupils from school to take them to class.

“It never made financial sense really,” says Douglas nonchalantly, “but the bank was very good. The chairman of the bank knew my family, and he told me to tell the bank manager that my talent was my collateral. It’s got easier. Over time you learn there’s a lot you don’t need.”

She was dancing as well as teaching, and in 1976 she became part of the TTW, touring as the Bolom in Walcott’s play Ti-Jean and His Brothers, and in Dream on Monkey Mountain. Later that year Carol La Chapelle took part in the TTW’s production of The Joker of Seville. She and Douglas did the choreography, and then formed an offshoot dance company, with Douglas as rehearsal director and La Chapelle as artistic director. They worked with the TTW on musical productions that included O Babylon! as well as staging dance seasons of their own.

Journalist Jeremy Taylor (publisher and former editor of Caribbean Beat) reviewed the company’s first show, Revival, staged at the Little Carib (it is, says Douglas, a wonderful venue for dance, not in spite of but because of its smallness, which allows an intimate connection with the audience. In any case, then as now, there were no purpose-built venues for dance in the country).

Taylor singled out Douglas’s dancing, praising the “agility and control that gives her a really extraordinary expressiveness.”

For Bynoe, the outstanding piece in the show was the eponymous Revival, danced to music by Nina Simone. Taylor too described the three-part Revival as the climax of the production: it “achieved an intensity and a development of all the earlier styles and themes with its fresh handling of folk material, its extremely imaginative choreography and costuming, and its use of offstage voices with drums.”

Because the piece was so memorable, some of Douglas’s dancers staged it again as part of their celebration of her 50th birthday. Originally there were five or so dancers, Bynoe remembers, but as part of the tribute to Douglas, “We did it with 20 of us, from different generations.”

Bynoe’s favourite piece of Douglas’s choreography is Why Bach? Why Not? “It was exquisite. There was always something unusual about her choreography, something daring, extraordinary.”

She remembers the work of the La Chapelle–Douglas Company as “really dramatic.”

This was partly due to the many contrasts between the two: La Chapelle was a tall, stately, classical ballet dancer, quite different from the more muscular, emotional Douglas and her modern technique. Reviewer Judy Stone commented on Douglas’s “sensual joy.” Her Graham-based style had audiences “gasping,” wrote Stone, “in excitement, with her lifts, spins, swirls, jerks and distortions.”

To her natural West Indian physical exuberance Douglas brought control, thanks to the formal skills she had learned abroad: sensuality and discipline combined to give her choreography and her performances energy, originality and authenticity, without having to fall back on traditional folk dance. Douglas and her contemporaries, such as Astor Johnson (still revered, though he died in 1985), sparked off each other: they had returned from their studies abroad to create dance that was entirely indigenous, and to perform it at international standards.

Douglas left the stage in 1984, and was happy to do so. She wanted to run a company, and it was hard to do that and dance too. Alvin Ailey gave her a fellowship that let her spend a year with his company, touring in the US, Japan and Hawaii, and learning how the organisation was run. By that time her collaboration with La Chapelle had come to a bitter end, and in 1985 Douglas started her own troupe.

Managing the dancers alone could be a full-time job. Douglas acknowledges that the arts “aren’t democratic; some people have more talent than others.” But she looked for more than talent alone in prospective company members.

“If they have a huge ego as well as talent, I leave them by the side of the road. I have no stars, it’s a corps. Dancing is teamwork; you have to encourage that.”

The practitioners of almost every discipline, and especially physical skills, tend eventually to turn to teaching. Dave Williams, who joined Douglas’s company in 1986, believes that’s especially true of dance: “In dance you need to work with people, and invariably a teaching sensibility develops. As you mature, you start to understand what movement is—Oh, that’s what Noble meant when she said, ‘You don’t sit on the floor, you sit out of the floor’—but you’re moving out of dance.”

There is, says Williams, “a generosity all dance teachers have, and certainly Noble exemplifies it.” Her generosity towards him has taken many forms. “I’ve danced with her for 23 years and never paid her a cent. I was asked to apprentice with the company, and the rest of the classes were free.”

It was Douglas too who encouraged Williams to try his hand at choreography, with a 1994 piece called Cobo, which involved the whole company, about 10 dancers. He’s now regarded as a cutting-edge choreographer and performer, and when he’s staged his own productions, she’s provided whatever he’s needed, whether lending costumes or offering criticism.

“A couple of pieces she would point at and say, ‘Davey boy, I don’t know what that was,’ and I have never performed them again, or would have to do them over. She’s still my mentor. I don’t regard anybody else in that way. In my career Noble has had the biggest impact of any single person.”

At the time he joined, Douglas’s company staged its own season every year, as well as performing in shows put on by other groups such as the Marionettes Chorale. That meant going to class four or five times a week, plus rehearsals three times a week as a show approached. Closer to a show, there would be rehearsals every day, including Sundays.

Staging a production also meant finding sponsorship and making or borrowing costumes. And the performance had to be up to Douglas’s exacting standards—or else. Williams recalls the first time he was asked to dance with the company, and went to a rehearsal for a music video being recorded at a club.

“That woman bust some cuss on those dancers,” he marvels. He got his fair share later.

“At Queen’s Hall you would run offstage, collect your cuss and gone back on like nothing happened.

“You would only take that from someone good.”

Wendell Manwarren agrees. “She’s not afraid to use the rod. She’s not looking to be your friend; she challenges you, to your benefit. She’s very nice—but at showtime she turns into a beast. I was quite amazed the first time I saw her in show mode.

“Her approach is very different with kids,” he adds. “She’s very nurturing. She’s devoted to young people.”

It’s the kids to whom Manwarren has taught drama at Lilliput since 1993. He’s a successful actor and a member of the rapso music group 3Canal, as well as working on productions staged at home and around the world by masman Peter Minshall’s Callaloo Company. But he says of his work with Lilliput, “It’s the most important thing I do.”

It’s not always easy to find the discipline to do it. “I wouldn’t be around teaching still if it wasn’t for her,” he admits. “But she’s not giving me the option to let her down.”

Douglas leads by example. “Noble can work with two- and three-year-olds,” Manwarren says admiringly. “I can work with six-year-olds—but that’s a challenge. She is the school—she brings the water cooler, the bag of CDs, the Chinee oil for headaches. She’s built an institution single-handed, with her allies. She’s like Mother Courage. Thirty years she’s been doing it.”

Williams is equally impressed. “She never missed a class or rehearsal, she’s never late. It’s amazing that she continues to put that kind of effort into it. She’s very humble. The struggle in Trinidad in art makes you hard and bitter and jaded, but not Noble. She’s still teaching, she’s not put off by any of the difficulties.”

And those difficulties are huge. Douglas’s work as a dancer and choreographer isn’t preserved on videotape, though there are a few scattered photographs. Sponsorship for productions is harder to come by these days, with corporate donors demanding formal proposals and preferring to support educational causes rather than the fine arts.

The dance company hasn’t staged a production of its own for several years—though it’s worked with the Marionettes Chorale, and with the TTW on a production of Walcott’s musical Steel. For several years too the company collaborated with the American Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group and the Zimbabwean Black Umfolosi singers, performing with them in New York.

But neither the dance company nor Lilliput has a home of its own.

“In an ideal world,” says Manwarren, “she’d be recognised as a major educator. There’d be a full-fledged institute bearing her name and carrying on her energy, vitality and spirit. She’s been doing it with nothing for years, but she could be a strong force in the world if she had the support and the structure.”

Williams adopts a sanguine view that he probably learned from Douglas herself.

“Institutionalising things is necessary—but you must have people who are passionate. A good part of our culture came from people who had nothing but passion. Once you find it, it sustains you and you’ll be fine.”

Douglas may not have a building named after her, but she still has major achievements to her name, among them an international reputation to be proud of. “If you go to the Ailey company,” says Williams, “or Juilliard, or any of the major dance institutions, and say you’ve danced with Noble, that means something.”

At home, the National Drama Association recognised the pioneering work of the Lilliput Children’s Theatre with an award in 2007.

Douglas’s work goes on, tirelessly, through her classes and Lilliput, which stages a production and brings out a Carnival band every year. Her protégés and ex-pupils, who come from all kinds of backgrounds, include some of the leading names in dance and theatre at home and abroad: Allan Balfour, Heather Henderson, Natalie Rogers, Nadine Mose, the late John Isaacs and Errol Fahey. There’s UK-based actress Martina Laird; actor-director Nicholai La Barrie, now head of Youth Arts at London’s Oval House Theatre; dancer Zara Bartels, who trained at the Ailey School and won a major role in the London version of The Lion King.

“Noble’s legacy,” Williams sums up, “is not a dance school, or recorded material—but that there are children dancing and acting, that I’m doing what I’m doing. She’s left a legacy that a lot of artists won’t leave, because they haven’t shared anything of their skill or technique. Noble has spent every minute sharing that ability.”