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National Dance Theatre of Jamaica

Fiftieth Anniversary Tour

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

September 23, 2012 -- Fairfield Concert Hall, London, UK

In 2002, Susanna Sloat edited an anthology composed of several Caribbean dance makers and cultural scholars discussing how movement shapes personal, communal and national identity. Rex Nettleford, who died on 2 February 2010, was a prolific historian and social critic who contributed an article to Sloat’s anthology. Nettlerford’s article recounted the legacy and visions of Jamaican dance practitioners including references to his own National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC). Founded by Nettleford and Eddy Thomas in 1962, NDTC's creative vision was to forge a dance performance art reflecting a Jamaican reality. Jamaican independence from Britain, 6 August 1962, was the catalyst in which Nettleford, the founding members of NDTC and all Jamaicans broke from the past to design their future. It was at this time that NDTC set itself a purpose to set dance performance the social political task of designing cultural identity and securing the historical perspective denied during British colonisation.

Nettleford's article describes several strategies utilised by NDTC to build its repertory. Reclamation and reconstruction were indicated as reputable strategies for revitalising the past to inform and inspire current practitioners. Innovations in dance practice would encompass a range of motivations for expression exemplifying Jamaicans’ changing attitudes towards culturally specific dance practices. All the practitioners discussed in Nettelford's article were representative of and illustrate how dance is shaped purposefully to maintain significance to Jamaicans and also by association Caribbean life.

Having an ancestral pedigree dating back centuries, Caribbean dance as other dance genres has several dimensions of practice reflective of genealogy and circumstance. Reclaiming ancestral dance and music traditions while simultaneously considering current cultural ramifications on dance practice has provided NDTC from its inception an inexhaustible resource. Consequently, this allegiance to traditional practices has an implicit mandate reflective of dance and its place and value in Jamaican and Caribbean culture. Lateral shifts in dance making between the traditional and contemporary practice occur within this rubric. NDTC has over the years strived to tailor a creative spirit that draws from the Caribbean's pantheon of dance theatre practice. It has been NDTC’s vision to devise a distinctive movement language "faithful to the Caribbean's sense and sensibility". (Nettleford, 2002, p. 82)

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, NDTC toured the United Kingdom during the week of 17 – 30 September, performing at The Malvern Theatre, Worcestershire; Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham; The Black-e, Liverpool; and Fairfield Concert Hall, London. Current Artistic Director Barrington Moncrieffe states in program notes that NDTC will use its 50th anniversary to "celebrate our passage of Renewal and Continuity" by presenting a variety of works responsible for shaping the identity of NDTC while affording investigations of differing modes of dance and music making. NDTC has a stellar reputation and has throughout its 50 years performed in the Caribbean, United States, and United Kingdom. Its repertory contains works by Cubans Eduardo Rivero-Walker and Ramon Ramos Alayo, Haitian choreographer, Jeanguy Saintus, Jamaican choreographers with substantial reputations in New York, Clive Thompson and David Brown and founding members Bert Rose, Barbara Requa and the late Rex Nettleford to name a few.

The performance seen by this writer at the Fairfield Concert Hall in London, 23 September 2012, was varied in dance and music form and courageously performed by the dancers. The staging of the works presented though was not as effective as would have been expected from such a renowned and prestigious dance theatre.

The performance space was draped with a white cyclorama flanked by blacks that obscured the sides of the stage. The blacks were arranged to allow entrances and exits only from the most downstage section of the stage space. Positioned downstage left were a collection of percussion instruments and electric piano. These instruments, positioned throughout the whole performance, were used for the NDTC singers who presented one set offering a mixed bag of Caribbean songs before the interval and for the final dance work, "Gerrehbenta". The designation of these instruments in this location sacrificed the visual setting and distorted choreographic intent for the dance works. Despite these logistical and spatial issues, the dancers performed admirably.

Incantation (2002) choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus with five men and five women positioned on a diagonal facing each other from upstage left to down stage right, began the evening setting a somber, ritualised ambience. Memorable is a sound scape punctuated with a mixture of lamenting female voices. The movement vocabulary contained Grahamesque spirals, attitudes, tilts with flexed foot and round backs. Spatial arrangements were reminiscent of a Greek chorus. Yonvalou backs and arms added a fluid, Caribbeanesque dynamic to the dance.

Sweet in the morning (1992), choreographed by Leni Williams, is a solo work with music by Bobby McFerrin. It was reconstructed from labanotation score and performed by Marlon Simms. Sweet in the Morning is reminiscent of several classic works within the pantheon of African American dance. With a bench placed perpendicular to the audience, the protagonist emerges upstage and progresses over, around and under the bench with wrapping, reaching, back attitude promenades and controlled balances. All movement was infused with an element of controlled emotion. Despite the choreographic devices to illustrate anguish and towards the end reconciliation, the performance seemed reserved as if Simms was more involved with the technical aspects of the movement than with the emotion. Given this emotional control the work was not diminished.

Sulkari choreographed by Eduardo Rivero-Walker is originally from the repertoire of the Danza National de Cuba which had its premiere on 13 May 1971 at the Teatre Garcia Lorca, Havana. With this work, Rivero-Walker investigates the ancestral/traditional repository of Caribbean ritual practices. Rivero-Walker provides a rendition of dance practices, sculpture, carvings, headdresses, masks, stools, and other elements from the Yoruba peoples of Arara (Dahomey). As stated in the program the dance is a work exalting fecundity and fertility.

Three women began the work dressed in flesh coloured leotards and enormous Afro buns. The cowrie shells which lined the neck of the leotards, also adorned the waist of the men's tights. The men entered with a staff just under six feet long. The clicking of the shells added to the ambiance of music from traditional Yoruba influenced Afro-Cuban music selected and arranged by Rivero-Walker. The movement was highly stylised and designed to replicate African sensibilities.

Minimalist in approach, the work progressed in episodic form: woman, man, union, birth, and passage. The intensity of the work, given its theme, was punctuated with the women dancers' torso and head movements that utilised staccato dynamics echoing the percussiveness of the music. This choreographic device was enforced again by the men who beat their staff on the floor in coordination with chug and travelling steps. The women's angular body design utilised the grotesque with exaggerated extensions of back and angularity in the legs when mounting the men. All was elegantly and discreetly portrayed allowing audience members to be immersed in the mystery of ritual.

Urbane fissure (2004), choreographed by Chris Walker, finds its inspiration in contemporary/popular modes of expression in Jamaica. It begins with a solo dancer and ends as a group work, and usesmusic by Bob Marley as a catalyst for attitude, sassy walks and bombastic movement phrases. The characters are urban, and the music along with sound effects of sirens proposes a contemporaneous point of view. The slouch in posture and dip in the walks characterised each dancer. One could see that this was a fun work for the dancers to perform and light entertainment for audience members who giggled at some of the characters, particularly at the bows.

Asi Somos (2008), choreographed by Arsenio Andrade-Calderon, was performed by an all male cast. The dancers confronted the audience with questioning facial expressions and gesticulations followed by a cascade of spins and jumps performed at a rousing pace. A moderately paced section followed as the dancers remove their shirts. Dust was used as an effect towards the end as the dance took on a ritualised ambience before returning to the opening configuration.

The last work on the program, Gerrehbenta (1983), choreographed by Rex Nettleford, draws on the ancestral/traditional practices of Caribbean dance by utilising several known Caribbean dance practices performed in an episodic manner. The work began with a solo piano playing but was soon accompanied by live voices and drums. In this performance, the use of the Benta, a large, elongated drum, was added to the assortment of percussion instruments. Gerreh is a dance usually performed for wakes or "dead yard" ceremonies to cheer the bereaved. It is evidenced in this work by a cork screw-like movement seen in the dancers' torsos. Dinki mini, a knock kneed movement in the legs is also recognised. Ettu is recognised as a dancer is "shawled"; a congratulatory type gesture performed by the group to show appreciation and respect for the dancer's extraordinary skill. The horse head figure of jonkunnu becomes a cultural marker situating the dance recalling for audience members who know and introducing to those who don’t vestiges of Caribbean ancestral dance practices.

In this work, the movements are specific with each dancer having his/her slant on expressing them. Spatial arrangement separates male from female making entrances and exits with an assortment of solos, duets, trios, quartets as well as full ensemble in a counter clock circle. The dance is not so much a replication as a recollection of traditional dance practices as the audience is presented with a kaleidoscope of several markers suggestive of Jamaica's dance heritage.

NDTC has for its past 50 years continued to resource and stock its repertory with dance and music works from the plethora that is Caribbean dance theatre. It has also continued to reach out globally to build its repertory with selected dance and music works similar in significance and sensibility to its particular creative vision. The program presented in London provided minimal indication of an amalgamation of the past to forge a NDTC vision released from social political task set by Nettleford and the founding members of NDTC in 1962. As Gerrehbenta is a repository of recognisable Jamaican dance icons, NDTC, as a repertory dance company, is a living archive of traditional and recognisable Caribbean dance practice. It would seem that NDTC as a repertory company is positioned as a reminder of Jamaica’s cultural past with a hint of its present dance making potential. As a living archive NDTC seems to have accepted its obligation to continue archaeological investigations into ancestral dance practices making the replication of traditional and classic modern dance works of the latter 20th century its staple ingredient.

Nettleford concluded in his article in Sloat’s anthology characteristic markers indicative of Caribbean dance theatre as isolated moves of body parts distinctive in use of rhythm, dynamic and body design. The distinctions range across borders, cultures and timelines. Jamaican dance terms have no English equivalent while labels borrowed from other culturally specific practices, contemporary and ballet practices, serve only to clarify collected inferences of how dancers of NDTC are trained and movement languages embodied. These inferences leak into choreographic works enabling a diverse physical ability and thus a diverse accessibility for Jamaican audience members as well as those around the world to read, interpret, enjoy and contemplate.

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