Remembering Rex, Tuesday night’s poignant production at the Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue, was in commemoration of late cultural icon, Rex Nettleford, who died four years ago.
It featured presentations by the two internationally acclaimed performing arts groups with which Nettleford worked for decades. They were the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), of which he was co-founder and artistic director, and the University Singers, for whom Nettleford choreographed movement for concerts.
Dancing along with the NDTC were five trainees, part of a group of aspiring dancers who have been participating in a special training programme for more than a year. When the trainees were showcased at the NDTC studio (beside the Little Theatre) on January 28, the audience of dance aficionados responded with delight. As conversations after the show assured me, many spectators believed that among the two dozen or so dancers on the studio floor were some future NDTC stars.
As they took on the challenge of eight dances, the performers, who ranged in age from the mid-teens to the early 20s, demonstrated that they were well on their way to achieving mastery of the terpsichorean skills. Three of the dances, He Watcheth (choreographed by Milton Sterling) and excepts from Islands and Blood Canticles by Nettleford, were established works. The other five were brand new.
Some of the dances – if not all – will reappear in expanded forms and will be performed by NDTC professionals. But the trainees will forever be able to boast that they danced in the works’ world premieres. Giving the trainees that sense of ownership was, I heard later, one of the choreographers’ intentions.
Broken (choreographed by Marlon Simms) featured a graceful, controlled solo by Jodi-Ann Smith in a flowing white dress. Bands A Gathering (Kevin Moore) was danced by the full cast in colourful revival costumes to a recorded medley of revival songs by the NDTC Singers. With Closer (Simms) we saw a duet by 14 year-old Lauryn Rickman of Immaculate Conception High School and 16 year-old Michael Small of Campion College, looking elegant and sophisticated as they got closer and closer together. By the end of the dance, her head was in his lap.
The 45-minute show ended excitingly with Simms’ The Chase. Its simple but amusingly suspenseful storyline shows a sophisticated uptown girl being musically seduced to join a group of dancehall performers. Try as she might, she can’t resist the driving rhythms and ends up dancing with the others.
Also among the 2014 dances was Kerry-Ann Henry’s Voice of Thrones, which featured the cast led by Gillian Steele. A couple of days later, across the road in the Edna Manley College’s School of Dance, which Henry heads, I spoke to her about the work. It was inspired by previous pieces she had choreographed, Henry said, and was primarily about feelings and emotions. Of the lead dancer, Henry said, “That person is representative of a lot of the emotions I go through, navigating not only the space of dance, but the space of life.”
She added, “I didn’t carry a specific message.” and Voice of Thrones is not a dance drama – as yet. It might be one when next seen by the public, she said.
“As a choreographer, I like to tell stories,” Henry said, elaborating on the process of the dance’s creation. “But I realise it’s okay to make the story come out of emotion. Then the audience doesn’t have to struggle to follow a storyline, but can sit back and enjoy the feeling.”
Henry continued: “I wanted to take people on this journey of thanksgiving and searching, for this is something we (the teachers and trainees) have been going through.”
From Henry and NDTC artistic director Barry Moncrieffe, whom I also interviewed that morning, I learnt more about the training programme. The audition for the first batch was held not long before Nettleford died, but it has been in the past year that Henry and Simms, the principal teachers, have put a firm structure in place. Classes are now held twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the students are taught a variety of dance forms. These include ballet, Caribbean folk, modern, and the NDTC’s unique dance theatre style which Nettleford developed.
Occasionally, Moncrieffe or others will conduct a master class, and once a month, the trainees have a class with the company. The young dancers are a ‘feeder’ group for the NDTC, and both Moncrieffe and Henry are confident that they will live up to the NDTC’s high standard. In fact, Henry stated, “Professor (Nettleford) would have been so proud of them.” He would have been particularly delighted, as Henry is, with the fact that there are so many trainees.
This is just as well for, as Moncrieffe admitted, “We (the company) won’t get all of them.” Many – perhaps most – of them will pursue other interests, he said, and mentioned one young man who may be migrating soon. In the meantime, Moncrieffe said he intended to put some of the trainees in the NDTC’s annual Easter Morning concert at the Little Theatre.
An enthusiastic Henry said that in addition to the trainees’ having “passion and dedication”, they have the talent and physical capabilities to present what she called ” a total performance package.” She explained: “They have the ability to do folk, modern technique and ballet-based choreography. The signature of the company is dance drama, and they are able to do that, too”.
With confidence, Henry declared “The company’s future is assured with them.”