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Reaching In to Tradition and Stretching Out to the Future: NDTC 2016 Season of Dance

David Brown's 'Labess' is one of the most striking dances of NDTC 2016

Six years after Rex Nettleford’s passing, the National Dance Theatre Company reached inward and stretched, pulling out Kevin Moore’s Hommage a’ Dambala, a sweeping dance that is a clear inheritor of Nettleford’s legacy of mining folk culture and combining live music with dance for a deep-seated cathartic impact. Hommage a’ Dambala isn’t the most engaging dance of the season, but it is a strong, solid and engaging dance. More importantly, it is noteworthy because it was a quiet signal that NDTC’s future is in safe hands as the company builds on Nettleford’s legacy.

The 2016 season was a diverse and engaging suite of dances comprising new pieces, a few from the past few years and revivals of iconic pieces. 

Troy Powell's 'Unscathed' is amazingly upliftingTroy Powell’s breathtakingly beautiful ‘Unscathed’ (2015) remains one of the most striking pieces in this current repertoire. Though it starts with somber intensity, the energetic dance is filled with dynamic movement and feels like a dose of Zoloft by the time it crashes toward its end. 

Other noteworthy pieces included Renee McDonald’s ‘Into the Blue’ (2015), and the revivals of David Brown’s ‘Labess’ (2002) and Clive Thompson’s ‘Folktales’ (2003). ‘Into the Blue’ is a dance best seen more than once, allowing your eyes to adjust to the multiple frames unfolding simultaneously. ‘Labess’ is a majestic dance that enthralls with its monochromatic visuals and tightly contained use of space and movement which is discordant yet precise building up to a crescendo of movement punctuated by magnificent lifts and spins.

Renee MacDonald's 'Into the Blue'

Though ‘Unscathed’ and ‘Labess’ are in many ways counterpoint to each other in mood and aesthetics, both dances highlight that choreography can be as much about movement as it is about geometry, as the dancers paint shapes on the stage that would take a mathematician’s breath away.

Tony Wilson’s Weeping Widow is also noteworthy and possibly as much for the choreography as for the lithe grace and emotional control brought by soloist Kerry-Ann Henry (she alternates with Kita-Marie Chamberlain).

Kerry-Ann Henry in Chris Walker's 'Mountain Climbing'

Kerry-Ann Henry is eloquent loss in Tony Wilson's 'Weeping Widow'Henry’s physical eloquence was also brought to bear Chris Walker’s ‘Mountain Climbing’. There are possibly more apt words to articulate this, but Chris Walker’s translation of folk and popular dance vocabulary is just downright sexy and Henry is the perfect conduit. Her delivery of ‘Mountain Climbing’ proves as enigmatic as the first time as Rex Nettleford’s iconic moves and the use of movement translated from Kumina, Brukins and Gerreh that becomes a conversation about dance. ‘Mountain Climbing’ is a dance about an iconic figure, but more importantly, it is making its own mark on the landscape.

‘Folktales’ brought with it a touch of whimsy and humour. The delightful choreography was amped up by the frothy colourful costumes and the thoughtful and creative arrangements of Jamaican folk songs including ‘Evening Time’ and ‘Sammy Dead’. Clearly revamped, not just revived, the 2016 rendition of ‘Folktales’ also included a touch of contemporary dancehall. This pop of dancehall was significant because NDTC almost never touches the genre. It wasn’t particularly imaginative dancehall choreography, but it added to the dance’s lighthearted flair.

The updated 'Folktales' added dancehall to its whimsy

Indeed, the only dance which seemed to miss its mark was the revival of Bert Rose’s ‘Moods’ (1976). It wasn’t so much that it was a bad dance, as it was an underwhelming one, and alas that is bad enough.

The 2016 suite of dances also included Nettleford’s ‘Ritual of the Sunrise’ and ‘Gerrehbenta’ as well as new pieces by Chris Walker (‘Man Alone’) and Marlon Simms (‘Beres on Love’). 

It is also worth noting that the NDTC Singers remain solid and engaging delivering a ‘You/We’ a medley that drew on the words of Bob Marley, Desmond Dekker and David Rubber to espouse the need for a more united region. Their costume which borrowed from the national colours of the countries across the region underscored the point.

NDTC Singers deliver a medley of songs on Caribbean unity

So, a modicum of diversity is something of a hallmark of the NDTC’s season with almost no two shows (or at least no two weekends) being the same. Each show presents a blend of new and active works from the repertoire and so that you can attend multiple evenings and still not see all the works in the active repertoire. It’s a factor that is both engaging and frustrating (especially as I haven’t seen Simm’s ‘Beres on Love’ nor Walker’s ‘Man Alone’). One consistent element, however, at least for as long as I’ve been attending these NDTC’s Season of Dance, is that the show opens and closes with a Rex Nettleford choreography.

Nettleford’s death did nothing to change this tradition. Having helmed the NDTC since its inception, Nettleford’s repertoire of iconic, sweeping, multi-movement pieces that have become synonymous with the NDTC are many. ‘What now?’ however, was a question lurking in the mental shadows in the wake of Nettleford’s death which had left a hole in the Jamaican artistic landscape. But fortunately, although there are many ways in which Nettleford was an institution, he left a legacy that would continue to dance without him.

Kevin Moore's 'Hommage a' Dambala'

And this is why Moore’s 'Hommage a’ Dambala' is so striking. For possibly the first time in the NDTC’s history, an NDTC show opened with non-Nettleford choreography, and so although ‘Hommage a’ Dambala’ was not the most striking choreography, it was possibly the most significant.