National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica
Jamaica became independent of Britain in 1962 and that same year marked the founding of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC). This was not a coincidence for the NDTC saw its role as a conduit for celebration along with contributing to the founding of the new nation. The company synthesizes a variety of dance styles blending “the lore, music and dance traditions of Jamaica, Africa and the America South with both modern and classical ballet forms.”
“Described as one of the most innovative dance companies to have achieved world acclaim in the last half century, the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) of Jamaica blends the lore, music and dance traditions of Jamaica, Africa and the America South with both modern and classical ballet forms.”
This kind of work is truly difficult and requires varying degrees of alignment and initiation within the body. When moving in a balletic form, the dancer must pay attention to maintaining an erect spine and defying the laws of gravity to keep a sense of airiness within the movement as they seemingly levitate across the stage… To then shift thirty seconds later into an African folk dance which requires the dancer to stay grounded (giving into gravity’s tendency to make the body feel heavy), and extremely rhythmic is no small feat.
These dances incorporated complementary and compatible modern and ballet sequences. Classical ballet served as a model since the national folk dances of Europe were absorbed by dancers in Jamaica during colonialism. NDTC Co-Founder Rex Nettleford found ballet to be beneficial (once stripped of its ethnocentric prejudices) because of ballet technique’s ability to strengthen limbs, especially feet and legs; aid in body alignment, and to facilitate stretches and extensions.
A critic once wrote that the work the company “has done is a distillation of the Antillean soul (this three-layered psyche born from the Amerindian, the African Slave, and the European) of such rightness that all of us born in the Caribbean recognize as part of our most intimate self.”
African and Caribbean idioms are used often within the company’s repertory. The stories of national figures and the revisiting of traditional songs and stories make this company’s aesthetic uniquely Jamaican. NDTC experiments with aspects of both modern dance techniques and European classical ballet principles that were attributed to the process of re-creation and revitalization. The hope was that the dancers would retain the power of certain movements that would evoke the hidden realities of contemporary Jamaican and Caribbean life. Their conceptual dances were based on ancestral rituals and recreational dances.
The company added contemporary street gestures in their pieces as another mode of telling a story for their people. When they danced on the floor their influences pulled much from Graham technique along with aspects of Jamaican dance that emphasized a characterized way of releasing energy which allowed the dancers to freely move the rib cage and hips in any direction. The culmination of dance styles within the repertoire does not deter the company from moving with its own kinetic force and aesthetic conviction to make it uniquely Jamaican.
Rex Nettleford and the dancers weren’t substantially funded when they formed their dance collective. The dancers Nettleford worked with weren’t compensated for some years other than through the exchange of ideas and the fulfillment of watching their work come together. The studios they shared flowed with people who showed up with various levels of technique and commitment. Anyone could leave at any given time, even when they might have been pushed to their respective limits. In order to see it through, those dancers pulled productive energy directly from their understanding of the hundreds of thousands of agreements humans make with each other based on, as Nettleford says, “common sense and the knowledge of people and the appreciation for each other”. The sacrifices they gave were in the name of Jamaica’s nationalistic identity.
For these Jamaicans, and many others who were searching for a nationalistic identity following the country’s gain of independence on August 6, 1962, dance was a primary instrument for survival. In his book entitled Dance Jamaica: Cultural Definition and Artistic Discovery, Nettleford spoke of the discipline needed from his dancers to take advantage of their physical and mental capacities. This was crucial because of the residual effects that slavery and colonialism had on the people of Jamaica in terms of pervasive dependency. Suddenly receiving that long sought-after independence in order to contrive your own modes or forms of “worship” was liberating for them. These unique forms of worship (their dances and music) were created for themselves; their sense of community was their survival response to postcolonial geopolitical and economic encirclement (i.e., combating the inevitable effects of assimilating in order to fit in and live with a world that was only created with their masters in mind).
Click HERE to learn more about the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica and their ongoing work
Written by Brian Bennett
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