Guyana’s National Dance Company celebrated its Dance Season 2008 with a programme that it called ‘Season 29 – Theme and Variations’ at the National Cultural Centre. A company’s annual season is generally a fairly uncomplicated activity for a group that has been busy all year. It is a production of selected performances in which a representative sample of the work that has been or is being done is shown to the public.
This collection may include a selection of some of the best pieces, new work, work in progress, and repertory – choreographies previously done by the company that may at times go back many years. These are dances that are a part of a company’s repertoire; that they repeat many times for any of the following reasons. The choreographies are signal pieces, among the company’s best or most significant work, and/or the choreographies are among their most acclaimed or their most popular, in demand by audiences.
Calling the production a ‘Season’ is normally enough since an informed audience knows what to expect, but Guyana’s NDC has an ongoing preoccupation. In its Season of 2008 it used a sub-title that tells a story. It normally likes to have a focus for its annual full dance production. Preferably, it seems, each year must be new, fresh, and different from the others with its own theme which unifies the selected choreographies. In many instances new work is created to fit the chosen theme, or the dances (whether old or new) are grouped according to themes, but having a theme or focus seems important.
This year’s title, ‘Season 29 – Theme and Variations,’ also indicates that the national company is still exploring ideas about a standard shape or structure for the season – a frame into which a new theme would be worked each year. This happens, as well, with the audience in mind and this is both good and not so good.
Often, and in fact, too often, the production is based on a story line. In this case it leans towards popular appeal, creating a plot that a popular audience will easily follow. It is something done in simple dances which actually try to act out or mime a story told by the words of a song. When this happens it does more for a popular audience than it does for dance.
The NDC does that from time to time, and did it again in Season 29 directed by Vivienne Daniel. The production succeeded, however, less because of its popular appeal and more because of a more fulfilling consciousness of audience, a new life, verve and interest, some real talent, an ability to respond to music with concept, image and symbol rather than mime, and a depth that the company still possesses. It could speak to its audience through dance, making social commentary and statements about culture and sub-culture on stage.
The programme was a combination of new, not so new, and familiar work done by the company. These were arranged into four parts, Symphony, Shades, Young Love and Dis ah Reggae Dis ah Life, each with its own focus of music which then led into plots, stories and thematic concerns. The last two sections had mixed interests, presenting popular and comic elements as well as some deeper reflections found more in parts of the reggae sequence. In both there were servings of comic mime and, particularly in Young Love, the lyrics of familiar songs drove a story line acted out by the dancers. These provided much of the light theatre that was a part of the programme, and it was very well received by the audience.
However, in most cases where it happened the centre shifted from dance to mime and acting which, while well done by the performers and quite entertaining did not have very much in them for those seriously interested in dance or wanting something more challenging.
That interest was satisfied elsewhere, but even in that same section it could be found in the gospel piece to Psalm 121 which responded to the music in the way most of the best dances in the production did. These were engaging interpretations that made full use of rhythms and commanded interest with images, mood and theatre. In those lay much of the strength of the programme found largely in Symphony and Shades, but also in many moments in Young Love including Malissa Smith’s lead performances, and Dis ah Reggae which emphasized the richness in theatre and the company’s keen sensitivity to the theatrical. There was always a good sense of place, setting, mood and atmosphere and dancers whose delight in what they were doing drew the same from the audience.
Although there were times when the tone of the music did not quite match the comic mimes taking place, the reggae sequence conjured up the rhythms and images of the reggae and dancehall sub-culture.
This sense of theatre is a factor that gives the performance the edge. It is a noted characteristic of the work of choreographer and director Vivienne Daniel. The influence on the dancers for whom she is tutor, mentor and parent-figure is marked in this performance characteristic, awareness of audience as well as discipline.
It is therefore not surprising that the NDC seems repeatedly rejuvenated after the recurring departure of leading members. This Season was able to draw on new talent including emerging “junior dancers” like Smith, Dacia Blackmoore and Delicia Helwig who demonstrate this element of performance.
The NDC thus makes effective use of its talent. This was evident in Symphony. That segment belonged to Shevonne Semple, who also featured as singer, an added area that now seems to have been given a place in the seasons. But more than that, it was in dance that Miss Semple made her mark in Season 29. As usual, there were questions about how soon will the void left by the departure of Susan French for studies overseas be filled. The very promising Jerusha Dos Santos emerged as a soloist. And the necessary quality of talent was certainly on show with Shevonne Semple as lead dancer.
Semple showed strength in her solo sequences and duet with Mario Wilson in Symphony. Her style is unassuming, unobtrusive and executed without fuss, and with calm control. It is good technique when one can see the effect, the finished product, without noticing the effort, and this was a recognised feature of her dancing in different choreographies. It certainly allowed her to carry the first quarter of the show impressively. Similarly, there have been for a long time, serious questions about the paucity of male dancers − competent male leads and soloists. Guyana has had a few legendary figures such as Philip McClintock, Gora Singh, Robert Narain, and for many years Royston Smith was alone, carrying that role in the NDC until Mario Wilson came into prominence. There was no problem with male dancers in Season 29, however, and the performance of Kijana Lewis made the once bleak, hazy horizon seem suddenly shining with a new aurora.
Lewis is without doubt a part of the answer to the problem, which is, perhaps, why he was allowed to be so dominant in the show. As in the case of Semple, who is multi-talented, the company also made use of Lewis’ multiple abilities. He is an actor with a keen sense of drama and was responsible for a good deal of the comic miming in the production. While his showmanship was great fun, it should not be mistaken for dance. It was in his many moments of real accomplished dance that he made his more lasting impact. Lewis was versatile, confident, sensitive, with command over technique, stage and audience. His interpretation was consistently thorough as in Yearning, and in Addiction, where his role was partly comic but controlled in a piece that treated the soca in Trinidad carnival setting with its masks, masquing, almost spiritual possession, and a little madness. It was so, as well, in Ode.
Ode, choreographed by Daniel using the poetry of Martin Carter, is one of the memorable repertory masterpieces of the company. It uses Carter’s ‘Poems of Shape and Motion,’ a sequence of verses in which the poet strives to make something elemental, physical and indestructible out of his poetry and ideas, to give them form, though shapeless, like fire. Transforming these particular poems into dance is inspirational and the narration by an unidentified reader and La Vonne George is excellent.
Like Lewis’ performance in Ode, other notable achievements in the programme included another repertory piece, Andante, Shevonne Semple’s solo in Symphony, the tribute to black artistes called Black, Unconditional with Malissa Smith as soloist, and some of the choreography to reggae.
In this production some careful attention was paid to set. It was good in the way it made effective use of the other new, now emerging members not previously mentioned − Rayana Beaton, Mariella Bennett, Bianca Loo, Marissa Primo and Tacoma Welcome. Yet an impact was made by the National Dance Company that appears to be holding its own and coming into regained stability around the other senior dancers Nikita Archer, Maresha Arthur, Tamika Austin, Maranda Drakes, Nicola Hinds, and Tamisha La Rose.