The National Dance Company’s ‘Pearl’ of a season

The National Dance Company (NDC) of Guyana celebrated the achievement of yet another milestone with the performance of its 2009 major dance production titled Pearl . . . Dance Season 30 directed by Vivienne Daniel.

Al Creighton
Al Creighton

That was the company’s  annual Season for 2009 which registered the marking of another significant step along a journey that it has been travelling for some 30 years. Not only was this an important anniversary production for an outfit that was founded in the late 1970s, but it was a demonstration of accomplishment and endurance and a reminder of the place in Guyanese and Caribbean dance earned by the company as a notable national institution.

This Season was in some ways a reflection of the current climate that has emerged in dance theatre in Guyana. It is one characterized by prevailing good weather in an environment in which both “fair and foul” coexist. There is a proliferation of dance schools, dance groups and ‘companies’ indicating the popularity of dance as a fashionable art form and skill with commercial possibilities. Many of them are quite low on quality, capacity and achievement raising concerns about standards but confirming a growing demand for dance and a widening popular audience for this theatrical form.

But “fair is foul and foul is fair” since this reflects appreciation for an art form and the existence of an audience for dance which are good things while it motivates those who lack the accomplishment to seize the opportunity to meet the demand. It is also a reminder that of all the performing arts in this country dance is the most advantageous because of the availability and practice of formal and technical training which is excellent, while on the other hand some of those who have set up ‘schools’ have done so somewhat prematurely. It is good to have so many full dance productions but some of the groups who produce them do not yet have the capacity.

The fairest thing about all of this is that excellent foundations in dance training were established in Guyana in the 1970s and the theatre today has inherited the benefits. A national school was followed by a national company which produced dancers and dance teachers with technical competence and set the stage for other private companies which developed an interest in training and research. There was further contribution from the Indian Cultural Centre and because of this sound foundation competent companies like the NDC, the National School of Dance, the Nritya Sangh of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, the Nadira and Indranie Shah Troupe (the oldest of the ‘private’ groups), Apsara (the newest) and the Indian Cultural Centre, were able to develop.

The programme for the National Dance Company’s 2009 anniversary production describes it as Pearl … Dance Season 30  “presented by the premiere national dance company of Guyana” and that is not an idle protestation. It might have been one of the ways in which the company’s Season this year is a reflection of the current climate in national dance. The NDC was after all, an essential part of that sound foundation fixed just over 30 years ago and has continuously been fed by the national school. It has produced and helped to produce some of the nation’s best dancers and choreographers, while at the same time some of those accomplished practitioners have contributed to it.  Besides, some of the really trained professionals who went off to set up their own groups came out of the company and or its national school. As the oldest group of real standards it can claim some responsibility for the existence of the others. To that one may add the company’s genuine quality and its consistency of service to the nation over many years.

The chosen theme was “Pearl” with its two segments called “Pearls of Nature” and “Pearls of Culture”.  The idea might well have been a presentation of gems of dance appropriate to a landmark anniversary since the programme “celebrated past and current members and friends”.  It presented a long list of items in a programme that was not exhausting because it was taut and lively. It was again a factor of the company’s propensity to overwork; a compulsion to create several new choreographies for each show when there are so many in the repertoire worth repeating. Yet the show was in part retrospective since many were repeated this time including a few memorable dances of the past and a few of the best of the new and very recent. Some of these might have been the celebration of past members. Among those were such legendary names as Phillip McClintock, Geraldo Lastra and Andrea Douglas along with support from guests, former NDC members Royston Glasgow and Clive Prowell.

One of the continuing problems of the company is the high turnover rate among its dancers following a trek of departures. The remaining corps of “Senior Dancers” remains small with Maresha Arthur, Jerusha Dos Santos, Gracelin James, Maranda Drakes, Nicola Hinds, Tamasha La Rose, Mario Wilson and Kijana Lewis.  Shevonne Semple performed as a singer. The rate of attrition, however, allows in an equally impressive company of “Junior Dancers” Rayanna Beaton, Dacia Blackmoore, Malissa Smith, Mariella Bennett, Latoya Browne, Tecona Welcome and Clifford Douglas.
The dance Good Ole Days was one of the reflections of the past as it recreated both an old choreography and an old dance form reminiscent of the work Tipperary Hall. Its performance, however, was characteristic of some of the best elements of the current NDC which are its capacity to entertain, its propensity to humour and its keen sense of theatre. These were vital features of the dance which contributed to its lively success. They were also evident in others like the study of insane characters of the street, one of the company’s popular pieces.

Two other important repertory items are the evergreen Conga Creole choreographed by Linda Griffith and the exceptional Ode to Martin by Vivienne Daniel. They are immortal works that are among the best of the past and the present, deserving of a permanent place in the company’s repertoire. Daniel, current Director of the NDC, and Griffith, who heads the National School of Dance, are among the best choreographers of Guyana dance in the past 30 years, who for most of the recent years dominated the field.
Griffith has a way with African dance and in the Guyana context Conga Creole is exemplary because “African dance“ is a very mis-applied term in this country. The composition was a part of the retrospection, having been created a long time ago and attractively demonstrates many genuine characteristics of the traditions of African dance.  This ranges from the flamboyant costuming reminiscent of both the formal Sunday dress of the Caribbean enslaved Africans and of the festive wear of the African continent to the dance steps and styles of ‘travelling’ employed in the choreography. Rhythms, formation, the colour coding and use of the ‘pointer brooms’ reflect some research into the relevant traditions and the Congo Nation (from which the Jamaican Kumina descended).  One change to the end of the dance caused an important departure from the original choreography where all the dancers face the drummers and bow, suggesting obeisance to the deity. That was done in this version; the piece left out was that the lead dancer then places her hand on the drum to end the rhythms, indicating that the communication with the ancestors is brought to an end.

Daniel’s Ode to Martin is another piece of excellence, perhaps the finest danced by the company in the past three years. It is unassuming but captivating choreography to a reading of Martin Carter by Linton Kwesi Johnson which is a masterpiece in itself. In Poems of Shape and Motion  the poet grapples with the concept of putting into some tangible form his thoughts and words, wishing he could shape them into living fire, something both ocular and magnificent yet fluid and malleable. Daniel captures this remarkably in dance as if she has managed to carry out the poet’s wish in body language, unity of movement, image, gesture and facial expression in a memorable artistic achievement.
Among the many other achievements of the company is the place it holds as a leading national company because it is more versatile than the others. The company’s dancers are not specialists in Indian dance but they are competent, and were able to register the fact that the Season was performed on Diwali night by offering two relevant dances: Lotus and The Lighted Path. One utilised strains of the kathak and the spectacle of lights while the other was designed around the images of the lotus flower in which the goddess Laxmi is often depicted as sitting.

Yet another element of the company’s achievements was demonstrated in the performance of some of its members who are beginning to distinguish themselves in dance. Kijana Lewis stepped in as a lead and rose swiftly to prominence when there was a lament about a dearth of good male dancers. He blends a strong sense of theatre with a mastery of technique, energy and stage presence and seems to be threatening to dominate Guyanese dance.
Neither is he short of partners as was exhibited in his technically demanding Duo II with Tamisha La Rose. Among the female leads Jerusha Dos Santos (sometimes listed as De Santos?) holds her own.

Indeed the 30-year journey that Pearl … Dance Season 30 tries to celebrate is one of triumph over potential obstacles like attrition, the departure of dancers and very limited resources. But these limits are in material things, certainly not in talent, imagination, sound training in the discipline and the spirit of dance.

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