The National Dance Company: Finding a theme
Arts On Sunday
December 24, 2006
Many dance companies have seasons: that time of the year when they present their major production to the public. Since many of them might do much travelling, they take this opportunity to present the state of their art to the audience all collected in one place and one series of shows. It brings the audience in touch with new work, gives an idea of what they are currently doing and, since most of them are repertory, offers many significant or evergreen pieces of old work. Sometimes some of this is work with which they are often identified.
In Guyana the National Dance Company has fallen into the unnecessary habit of finding a theme for each annual season into which all the dances presented must neatly fall. Perhaps a look is taken at the collection of dances prepared for a particular season and an appropriate theme elicited, or a theme is decided upon and dances composed to fit it. If it is the latter, it is unnecessary extra work, but the company has been known to fashion a story-line to string dances together, ending up with a plot of popular choreographies rather than studied explorations in dance. Given the normal workload of the company in any year during which they may be called upon at any time to perform for various government or regional functions, or to do favours for sundry public, private or friendly organisations, they cannot be described as underemployed. And given their other unnecessary habit of believing they must find a brand new choreography for every occasion, they tend to move easily into overwork.
But the company does not have to work that hard. A bit of repertory, showing off some of their best or most significant recent dances, taking one or two from the old archives, a selection to give an idea of what they have been performing at isolated events throughout the year, any special experiments, and a few new works will be more than enough to make a season. In 2006 they produced that kind of collection rather than any notion of having to find twenty new choreographies.
There was, however, still a covering theme which, though attempting to connect everything under its umbrella, allowed for a free variety of items sub-grouped under six independent sections, each with its own relevant theme. Most of the pieces were already known and previously performed and these effectively complemented the few that were brand new. In 2006 the company played on the closeness of the production to the fast-approaching Christmas season to present A Season for All Seasons. It was mixed, but balanced; a few of the choreographies were not worth keeping, but the strong ones made the show and would leave an audience with a sense of a successful season.
Ironically, however, the most 'seasonal' section of the programme was the softest. The Season of Christmas, which ended the night, was duller, less inspiring and less accomplished than the others. The two items of note in that 'season' were Shevonne Semple and the final item, Bashment. Although Miss Semple's career in dance has been considerably more fulfilling, she is sufficiently talented to have achieved as much as a singer had she moved in that direction. The song was much too light to begin to challenge her, but the performer was excellent. The dance Bashment was a reasonable piece spiced up by the new music of the soca parang, even though it could have been more informed by the distinctive idioms of the Christmas time parang tradition.
Obviously, through the annual run of seasons, the dance company struggles (unnecessarily) for a shape and structure for the production. Director and choreographer Vivienne Daniel, who is the mentor, guru, artistic and administrative foundation holding the company together, still tries to decide whether or not there should be a narrator and a narrative. It is not compulsory, and sometimes does not work, but this time it did largely because of the clear ability of the narrator, La Vonne George. Because she sometimes had the task of filling time while the dancers changed (it is a small company) her ability to hold the audience's interest was put to good use. In fact, effective narration (by Margaret Lawrence) contributed, as much as the disciplined performance of the dancers did, to the success of one of the items, Philosophy, choreographed to spoken verse.
It was a patriotic piece in the opening section, A Season for Nationhood, in which the most outstanding dance was Consciousness. This familiar choreography to the music of First Born's Irites, was one of those that defined some of the best qualities of the show. Vivienne Daniel studied the rhythm and mood of the reggae, using them to inform the images, symbols and tone so that the work is not just movements imitating lyrics, but a form driven by the recognisable brand of the reggae music known for its social commentary and voice on behalf of the depressed.
This sensitivity to form carried over into the Season for Festivals, focusing on some of the traditional festivals of Guyana. This is a theme that offers a potentially great challenge for the company in terms of research into traditional forms that may accompany these festivals. That challenge was partially taken on in this season. Relatively little was achieved in Mash Bash, which was fairly superficial but much more was seen in the African dance Flash of the Spirits, in which Mrs Daniel exhibited a knowledge of the African dance ethos. Work of this kind has been also associated with Linda Griffith. While costume helped to make the statement, the company was equally able to communicate some idioms of the ethnic tradition. For this section, The Lighted Path achieved the most in terms of dance forms related to festivals in spite of the drawback that it was Diwali without lights. It seems the theatre's fire safety regulations prohibited lighted diyas, and the substitutes they fashioned were unsatisfactory. They nevertheless managed to communicate an idea of the relevant Indian dance forms which informed the work and it was convincing as some small approach to the festival.
Then, form itself was the major theme in the sections for Movement and Mood. There were various explorations in modern dance in which the company engaged a range of styles, foremost among them being Andante and Sireine. In Andante there was an exercise in discipline bordering on the classical, which the dancers took to with grace, enjoyment and precision. The nature of the choreographies in these sections made strict demands on technique which could hardly be faulted in this fluent dance, enhanced by the use of chairs, symbolic and functional in what suggested an emphasis on discipline.
The music of Yanni's Desire was well suited to Sireine, which drew strength from mythology, including the Greek Siren, in a duet performed by Jerusha Dos Santos and Mario Wilson. It was a very demanding piece which tested technique, balance and sensitivity, and in which these highly talented dancers also exhibited command and precision. Wilson and Dos Santos, as well as Tamisha La Rose, convincingly met the demands of their lead roles in this segment.
The National Dance Company's approach to form and social commentary was bold, radical and impactful in the segment A Season for Society, a sequence for which this Season for All Seasons might well be remembered.
Families in Crisis is a full-length work in which Mrs Daniel essayed many ideas, including the use of dance to live musical performance in the opening episode where Shevonne Semple was advantageously utilized as singer.
The general plot with its themes and social statement were carried by sequences of dance, mime and drama with the employment of image and symbol being among its best artistic achievements. The dancers understood tone and dramatic expression which were important to the piece. Yet there were reservations which are equally relevant to MAD and Pon De Corner, two other impactful works that share the same weakness and emphatic strengths with Families in Crisis.
Those works by the company carried by story lines have a tendency to descend into mime when they would have been stronger if carried mainly by dance. The performers often end up as actors rather than dancers, even though there is sometimes a good blend of the two. MAD has no story line, but it is based on a cast of characters resulting from genuine field research carried out by the dancers that does credit to them as artists. It therefore depends a great deal on costume and acting which were often satisfactorily transformed into images for dance. Similarly, Pon De Corner is a mosaic of scenes driven by Jamaican popular music, revisiting the ska, rock steady, reggae, dance hall and passa passa. Dance is very generously assisted by mime and gimmicks including the spectacular appearance of the fashionable CBR bikes rakishly ridden on stage.
However, like Consciousness, it has also benefited from research which puts more meaning to the reggae music and the dance forms which it generates. Pon De Corner takes its audience deep into the dance hall culture with the accompanying currents of the urban popular sub-culture that sustains it. These should excuse the gimmicks which, nevertheless, were not meant to replace the genuine dance that was still there.
Yet, the great strengths of the social commentary sequence also included a very effective sense of theatre. It was dramatic, entertaining and audience inclusive. It was bold dance but also very good theatre with a cast whose enjoyment of their work infected the audience.
The use of live singing drew attention to the fading away of the use of live drumming, since the dance company's drum corps is now reduced to Mark Cyrus alone. Even the number of dancers in the company is continuingly threatened and the success of the 2006 season is itself a tribute to the hard work, consciousness of technique, sensitivity to mood and strong sense of theatre exhibited by Nikita Archer, Mareesha Arthur, Dacia Blackmoore, Jerusha Dos Santos, Maranda Drakes, Nicola Hinds, Gracelin James, Tamisha La Rose, Shevonne Semple, Malissa Smith, Kijana Lewis and Mario Wilson.