The National Dance Company: Tours of the Imagination Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton

Stabroek News
October 27, 2002

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Around this time each year one usually looks with interest towards the annual dance season of Guyana's National Dance Company. This group is Guyana's closest thing to a real company of trained professionals in the theatre (it is, strictly speaking, semi-professional). On one level it is significant to see how it is surviving, or not, as the case may be, and on another, it is of interest to see what they have done, thematically and conceptually over the past year. On yet another plane, one wants to know whether they have grown.

The Company manages to subsist on surprisingly meagre resources. It is very progressive that the government maintains a national company of dancers at this semi-professional level in addition to a school of dance. But the maintenance costs are not fully met and too much of the dancers' energies have to be spent raising funds for projects and routine things. Yet when they earn income it is not made readily available for their direct development. Furthermore, little effort is made to take advantage of opportunities for overseas exposure and education, something that the government is in a position to explore.

Despite numerous hints that they need to be refreshed and advanced by sabbaticals overseas where they can gain necessary exposure, the dancers and choreographers have been grounded for years in Guyana where they are in danger of stagnating. It is therefore rather ironic that their chosen theme this year is an imagined tour. It is an inward-looking tour of Guyana, however, as opposed to last year when the "Season's" theme was "Out of this World". Both of these themes, nevertheless, signify that they have a growing sub-conscious need to take off, get out of parochial confines and go places.

And that is what many of their members have done. Despite inducting into the Company, a number of new Associate Members only very recently, the group has dwindled in size. The newcomers survived a lengthy apprenticeship before they graduated from the Advanced Class in the National School of Dance to be declared full members of the Company. But now the obviously talented Charlene Stuart, Shevonne Semple, Omodella Dyal, Jerusha Dos Santos and Althea Providence probably feel like veterans because of the speed with which they have had to fill the gaps left by departing members. Meanwhile, the Company continues the cycle and is quite likely seeking a fresh set of Associates from the School.

Fortunately, a small core of the most established dancers remains to provide a base of continuity and expertise.

The now legendary Susan French, Sarah De Mendonca, May Ann Cheong, Gracelin James and Nichola Hinds persist as the indefatigable axis of a small, dwindling, over-worked Company. The nation also has the good fortune to have the services of Vivienne Daniel, Company Director, and Linda Griffith, Dance School Director, two choreographers who "doth bestride the narrow world (of Guyanese dance) like a collussus".

Against the trend of departing dancers, Royston Glasgow, who was the lone fortress as a male dancer in the Company for years, returned to join Clive Prowell as the only men at the top of local dance.

The choreographers have had to be very resourceful in finding a few available men who have any competence at all from both inside and outside of the School. This has included putting them through an accelerated course of training.

In terms of art and form, generally, the National Dance Company has grown intellectually. Although many choreographies of late have suffered from a repetitive sameness, much thought and imagination have gone into concept, thematic unity and creativity as was reflected in the design of the last two "Seasons". Testimony to these have also been the efforts to create full-length dance dramas like "Journey's End", this season's "Hinterland Encounters" and last season's "The Unveiling". The same can be said of the depth of research behind a dance like "Congo Creole" and the conceptual strength of this season's "African Safari" and a past classic like "Testament".

On Tour for the Season

This kind of intellectual effort and striving after thematic unity drove the design of this year's season, On Tour". Director Vivienne Daniel explained it in a recent interview with Kim Lucas "We ended last year with a dance called "Unveiling", which depicted our dreams "Out of this World". It said things might be bad, but you got to move on; these are some of our dreams. Where we would like to take the Company, where we would want to go. This year it is a dance drama setting the stage for "On Tour"."

And "On Tour" is the title of the production for the 2002 Dance Season. As Mrs Daniel describes it.

Basically, it is going on a spiritual plane around the world in 120 minutes. In Guyana, there is "Hinterland Encounters", another segment, called the "Love Boat" deals with everything about love . . . all the dances talk about love and it all ends with "Homeward Bound", they return to Guyana."

This indicates the most recent efforts on the part of the company's "ongoing wrestle with self definition". There is certainly a commendable attempt to struggle with themes and concepts, to lend artistic strength to the Season, to link the dances through a unifying idea. In "On Tour" , success at this design is mixed and the dances are uneven. What is good is that this achieves team-work, including intellectual team-work. It strengthens the production as some choreographies aid and abet the design in interesting ways while keeping their individual integrity. This individual integrity is important for the avoidance of sameness. But some segments break down, do not fit the thematic flow and fall out of the plot.

The tour opens with a light-hearted assimilation of dancers dashing off on a trip, but the seriousness and intensity progresses to what was the high point of the First Part. The peak of achievement was reached with "Hinterland Encounters" and "African Safari" which stood out for different reasons. "Hinterland Encounters" is the latest in the attempts to create major dance dramas like "Journey's End". It is less accomplished than its predecessors in this corpus, but it reflects reasonable academic effort and the ability of the dancers to perform such works.

This dance had the artistic and performance energy to hold the audience, exuding the feel of a major work in progress. It enters what appears to be the more mythical and traditional world of the hinterland Amerindians and includes a drama with a romantic centre.

Then other traditions are explored in the spiritual journey as the Company went to the African connection. "African Safari" was a truly inspiring experience and took the First Part to an appropriate high at the end. This dance brought out the best in the performers, who communicated mood, symbol and image in a choreography that has all-round power. "Safari" suggests a journey into a hinterland and this certainly took all concerned on an inward excursion into the soul and ethos of Africa.

The "Eastern Connection" in the Second Part was less profound, as it went cursorily into Indian forms such as the Kathak. Clearly the attempt was at a suggestion, but the Company has gone deeper in previous dances on the same theme. The piece choreographed by Oral Welshman was a weak link in the chain. It had no particular strength of its own and its place in the "tour" was not clear. But this was typical of Part Two because the thematic unity broke down at times before the end where "homeward Bound" might have been a return to the Mashramani, but was artistically slight in the unified chain.

Here the "Tour" explored the vicissitudes of love in "Love Boat's" triangular affairs, and went "Island Hopping". In these islands they found another real high-point in the well executed Reggae sequence and, especially, in the Limbo Dance. In the limbo the whole Company came alive in the same heights of verve and vibrancy that it reached in the African Safari. Technically, there were a few stumbles as conquering the descending limbo bar is no pushover. But the dance exemplified the great fun that was sometimes achieved in this production.

In some pieces the Company obviously enjoyed themselves, at times in turn, electrifying the audience. A total immersion into the performance is not always a strength of all the dancers, but in this show such expression was much more in evidence. There were fewer dances that could be called intellectual challenges and more that were fun and entertaining even though not really memorable.

The "Unveiling" of last season is certainly remembered, as "Äfrican Safari" , "Hinterland Encounters" and, to a point, the Limbo Dance (for its verve) will be. The company went on a spiritual plane and flew to some height before becoming homeward bound.

But in the meantime they remain home-bound, and in need of the spiritual and technical refreshment that they can only receive if anyone is moved to put them on a real jet plane to fly to places where they can enlarge their horizons in more tangible ways than through the fantastic imagination.