Dance festival: the good, the poor and the as yet untried Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
November 28, 2004

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Following the National Dance Company's annual Season for 2004 was a two-day festival of dance produced by the Ministry of Culture at the National Cultural Centre. It was a critical statement on dance in Guyana with a mixture of positive and questionable features, revealing an encouraging interest in this performing art, but exposing correspondingly wide gaps in knowledge and technique. The major statement, however, has to be about discovery and achievement.

This festival presented a variety of several single dance items performed by groups drawn from different regions of Guyana. Obviously, the Ministry of Culture created the opportunity for almost every group, community and little centre of interest to produce an item for the show, deliberately going into areas far from Georgetown and bringing them in for the few days of focus. The outcome was surprising and instructive. It produced two shows in which an amazing number of groups performed more than nine hours of dance items. They went on for in excess of four hours each night before audiences that showed as much exuberance, energy and endurance as the dancers, sticking it out to the end.

The overwhelming tenor of the performances was popular, which is not surprising, although there was no shortage of variety. What was surprising was the revelation that there are so many groups in Georgetown and even more so, that so many more exist and that they could be found and brought in from rural areas and remote communities. Also, as was to be expected, there was a great variety in the quality and levels of competence among the various performers, covering the spectrum of achievement from very good to poor.

But the whole project was developmental. That it followed so closely on the heels of the National Company's Season was significant although it is not known whether that was deliberately timed. The Season usually demonstrates the work of the best trained and most accomplished practitioners of the art of dance in the country. It always brings the reminder that dance is the only performing art form for which formal professional training is publicly provided and in which a national semi-professional company is maintained. (Formal and classical training takes place in music, but only privately and in small numbers). There is also a National School of Dance from which the best of the advanced classes are periodically recruited into the company.

The 2004 Season showcased a reproduction of some of the more memorable choreographies created throughout the company's 25 years of existence. No doubt this could set the tone for the possible and desired levels of achievement in the discipline for other developing, aspiring, amateur and fledgling dancers to aim at. In many cases, the work of the several dance groups from around the country was examined by experts who gave directions for improvement. In some cases, members of the Dance School assisted the groups before they put their dances on stage in the shows.

Among the very positive outcomes was the obvious popularity of dance as a performance item and a means of entertainment. It attracts hundreds of aspirants. In the recent Diwali celebrations there were concerts, stage shows and performances all around the country, on the UG Campus, in Georgetown, on the West Bank and the Essequibo Coast. In these, dance was the most popular item. Then, there has been a concern for a long time about where the next set of good choreographers would come from. Vivienne Daniel and Linda Griffith have dominated for years, raising the bar to a height that it was feared no others could reach. But Nadira Shah demonstrated her capacity to reach it, followed by only a very few others including Dr Persaud who leads Naya Zamana (if we leave out those professionals brought in by the Indian Cultural Centre). This dance festival suggested that there is a corps of designers from whom other good choreographers could probably emerge.

Other encouraging elements include the outburst of joy and celebration, the overflow of energy and enthusiasm that gave evidence of guaranteed interest. This was not only encouraging among dancers generally, but among male dancers in particular. At the highest levels in Guyana, male dancers are scarce and in demand. Those at the next available level are often not good, so the shows gave evidence that several men are interested and allowed a hope that some with talent may emerge.

It was also positive to see the commendable work done in areas of stage production and crowd management. This kind of variety show can be unwieldy and a challenge to stage managers and directors, but in this case the production flowed with good pace and smoothness. Another high point was the effect of costuming which, if not always profound, was colourful and spectacular.

But it was in the area of depth that the less positive factors were to be found. While this festival attracted great numbers, it showed that the activity is in popular dance rather than in the study of dance. Understandably, the groups performed what was easily accessible to them: the uncomplicated, the simple, the filmi and the popular. This was accompanied by a general lack of technique in choreography and in performance. This became obvious when trained dancers like the National Dance Company, the National School of Dance and the Nadira and Indrani Shah Troupe took to the stage. It showed the need to prune, shape and discipline this energetic explosion of enthusiasts and the daunting task that presents.

To go further, it showcased the need for the study of dance and the maintenance of indigenous dance that is there in many communities waiting to be researched. Amerindian groups demonstrated interesting fusions, including the Latin rhythms popular in many Amerindian localities, particularly those open to Venezuelan and Brazilian influence. The popular salsa had forged new forms which make interesting study, but they underscore the threat of the disappearance of even more interesting traditional forms. Neither were any other traditional forms in evidence among other groups.

Clearly, because there was so much to be seen and the intention of the producers was to bare all, the shows were much too long. But the audiences remained to see endings which did not disappoint. The overriding theme was achievement - never mind the glaring need for training and research - and this was well displayed off by the endings. On each night the final curtains descended on very spectacular, colourful and well-coordinated finales which brought all the groups on stage for curtain calls that were appropriately celebratory.