The recent performance of the Dance Season 2013 of the National Dance Company titled Suites –Revista choreographed and directed by Vivienne Daniel, in some ways underlines a number of significant factors in the place and state of the company at the present time. These things are not new – they were just re-emphasised.
The 2013 Season showcased five suites in Suites – Revista: “Rainbow Suite”, “Ailey Suite”, “Caribbean Suite”, “Suite Mosaic” and “Fragmented Suite” in a programme with strength and variety. But the company faces as many threats as opportunities at the present time.
The ‘Ailey Suite’ continued a deep preoccupation of Vivienne Daniel in the influence Ailey has had on her and her continuing studies of his work. Ailey as influence and inspiration is no surprise. The Alex Ailey American Dance Theater of New York City founded in 1958 is reputed to be one of the outstanding and most influential companies in the USA with an extensive record of international tours, including tours as representative/ ambassadors of the American government. It is a company with which Daniel apparently became quite close and she has studied Ailey’s most famous work Revelations (1960). It is based on African American music – Negro spirituals and the blues – and explores the Christian faith of black Americans (although Ailey’s company has always been multiracial).
Daniel’s adaptation of the Revelation was a revisit of repertory work since the NDC had danced it before. The pieces in the suite were taken from “Pilgrim of Sorrow”, “Take Me to the Water” and “Move, Members, Move” – the three parts of Revelation. This showed one area of NDC expertise as the dancers convincingly reproduced the work in costume, mood and atmosphere. The performers appreciated the intensity of feeling and depth of expression that these works demanded.
The tone was markedly different in the ‘Caribbean Suite’ driven by soca and reggae with their contrasting rhythms and images. The flamboyant, extroverted and explosive soca choreography in “Guyana Cruise” was somewhat grounded in the more introspective explorations of Bob Marley’s “Exodus”. This one had depths of its own and continued the kinds of movement grounded as much by the bass as by the penetrating enquiry of the themes of a people’s plight. The NDC captured the body language to express the rhythm and culture of reggae that they are now able to master. This was one of the most notable pieces of the evening because of its articulation of this kind of dance based specifically on a sub-culture and its music, in addition to the statements it made of a people and a history.
Once again in the programme the company quite adeptly switched styles and interests as well as directions when it came to the “Suite Mosaic”. The preoccupations were not as deep and the theme had fewer questions to ask of either performer or audience. This was the section that reached out to popular dance and the audience did find it appropriately entertaining. The NDC revisited a storyline previously performed on the subjects of love, commitment, distractions and the family. Here was a mixture of a mini dance drama and a playlet whose action is carried by dance. It was a popular sequence interspersed by mime, acting and one or two exhibitions of top quality dance. These narratives have always appealed to the popular audience but have never brought out the best of the NDC. They take popular songs, mostly love songs and use them to illustrate or help carry the story.
Out of this came another of the company’s memorable pieces set in a club and choreographed to Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”. This was a high point in a narrative only occasionally punctuated by memorable dance. It was one of the noteworthy pieces of theatre in the NDC’s repertoire mixing audience appeal with a concentrated study of images from the ‘red light’ sub-culture of strippers and lap-dancers. While it was a part of the narrative it stands by itself with great strength, performable with meaning and its own independence quite outside of the story-line. The same is not true for most of the other pieces in the suite.
That said, the solo performances in “Remorse” were moving and demanded disciplined technique from the dancers. And talking of what was memorable – this has to include the part played by the younger daughter in the family under threat of breaking up according to the story; a pre-teen who demonstrated that at her age she has acquired some technique and is actually seriously learning to dance. Many of her age seen in some other private dance school performances are able to prance and imitate steps to music without betraying any signs of learning.
The “Fragmented Suite” was varied, exhibiting the company’s wider range of research into dance. This came over most in “Danceversations”, “L’Air” and “Ancestral Vibes I”. The NDC has always done Indian dance without making it a major specialty. “Danceversations” echoes the sound of its name through an excursion into forms, seeming to have a conversation between kathak and others. They carried that off with comfort, while “L’Air” journeyed into the ballet. This form of classical dance is now rarely seen on stage in Guyana, and no doubt the company wanted to show that they have not forgotten how to do it. Neither have they forgotten the ancestors, which is a dangerous thing to do in the African world picture. “Ancestral Vibes I” returned there as the dancers visited African dance traditions.
This Dance Season 2013 drew a line under a number of factors. The title, Suites – Revista, suggests a revisit to what has been done before, and surely this programme was largely repertory. It revisited work already explored by the company, and this is one of the factors to which the production drew attention. A national company such as this one has roles to play in the nation’s dance, particularly when it stands in juxtaposition with a National School of Dance. These relationships have already been expounded upon in Arts on Sunday.
Training takes place at the national school from basic to advanced levels with the company drawing its membership from the best of the advanced graduates. The company then becomes a workshop for higher exploits in dance including research and experiments. But it also takes the opportunity to explore interests in different forms of dance as a part of its study of the form, and that is why it becomes important to engage in revisiting areas already entered. This happened in the Season 2013 with Alvin Ailey and the kinds of dance in black American spirituals and blues. This can be a research interest resulting in public performances which expose the audience to the forms and through revisits, keep them in touch with them. That is also why companies engage in repertory: to continue exploring their interests and to show off their best works created over a period of time.
The same goes for the revisit of the love story told in “Suite Mosaic”. The NDC developed this as a part of its offerings some years ago and has been retaining it in seasons and other productions. It is an acknowledgement of popular dance as a viable form, and something that a company of this kind may do as part of its exploration of different dances. Yet, there has to be a difference between the national company and other private dance groups that do not have a national agenda and indeed have no responsibility to have any.
Classique, as a company, can play to the popular audience from which it gets its following, but something else is demanded of the NDC. The latter cannot decide to be popular in order to attract the mass audiences that fill theatres to capacity, because it has a teaching and an intellectual responsibility.
It must keep the nation in conversations (“Danceversations”) about dance; about forms; about styles.
Another factor might well have something to do with popular appeal as well as earning capacity.
The dancers performing in the National Dance Company 2013 Season were: Maresha Arthur, Rayanna Beaton, Joseph Bobb, Clifford Douglas, Jerusha Dos Santos, Mwanza Glenn, Maranda Drakes-Hudson, Tamisha La Rose-Bailey, Maurissa McPherson, Nicola Hinds, Tecona Welcome, and Malissa Smith.
A number of these are familiar names, but the list reflects the high turnover in membership that plagues the company. The national migration rate is high and that takes its toll on local dancers as well, but there might well be other factors responsible, including the attraction of earning possibilities outside of the NDC, or the lack of them within it.
That is why our previous discussion of the role of the NDC stressed the idea of NDC members earning money by virtue of their NDC membership. In the present prevailing climate of professional theatre that is a necessity.
The company always includes associate members in its productions, and that is a good thing for their development. But they continually have to draw on those associates to replace members who leave. There is a need to make membership of the NDC more attractive if it is to perform its functions, seize its opportunities and sweep away its threats.
These factors were included in that previous discussion. The way things are going it might well be time for Arts on Sunday to do a “Suites Revista” of its own and emphasise these vital points again.