Our Caribbean Spirit: New Traditions Festival 2017
June 16 - 18, 2017
There are cultural niches waiting to be filled, some particular to Brooklyn, where the islands of the Caribbean come together. Candace Thompson realized this as an emerging choreographer who wondered how she could get her work more widely seen, and more specifically, how work like hers, imbued with both her formal training in modern dance and other dance idioms, and her Trinidadian heritage, could reach a Caribbean American audience in New York. Joining with others in the same situation, she founded Dance Caribbean Collective (DCC) to present their first program in June 2015.
In the short time since, DCC has grown exponentially. The collective not only offered a performance festival in 2016 and three days of Caribbean-inflected contemporary dance at the Mark Morris Dance Center this June, but also now encompasses dance classes, town hall meetings, a youth dance program, and a network of choreographers and mentors who can offer each other mutual support. And, of course, a website1: one that connects multiple programs, interests, participants, research, videos, and a calendar of dance classes and events, all coming together into a dense and expanding web of people and organizations interested in Caribbean dance and culture.
“Why don’t more people know about us?” is the question Thompson and her incipient collective asked. Everything DCC does is designed to expand the audience for Caribbean dance and culture and the connections between them. From Pearl Primus (from Trinidad) to Garth Fagan (from Jamaica), important choreographers have connected Caribbean origins and African antecedents with American modern dance. So the mix of Caribbean and modern into something new and contemporary is not new at all, either in the U.S. or back home on the islands. Still, it can be hard for choreographers to be seen, not only by audiences in general, but also by the members of the huge Caribbean community in New York City.
The idea, Thompson said in a personal interview, is to create a central hub for information about Caribbean dance and performance, to tell the Caribbean story in a way that Caribbean artists have control over. Keeping control over Caribbean content when Caribbean culture moves into the mainstream was one of the topics of DCC’s Town Hall meeting at Brooklyn College in May, part of its 2017 CUNY Dance Initiative residency at the college.
The audience wrote responses to questions about appropriation, appreciation, and mastery that were posted on large sheets of paper. The panelists; Thompson; Valerie Mcleod-Katz, Director of Fine and Performing Arts at Medgar Evers Preparatory School and Production Manager of the West Indian Labor Day Parade; Jessica Phoenix, an African American choreographer who works with dancehall; and Michael Manswell, Artistic Director of the New York Trinidadian folkloric company Something Positive, discussed such issues within the context of their own professional journeys. The discussion, moderated by Sita Frederick, was intense, both among panelists and audience. But everyone had fun first: BlackGold’s Korie “Genius” and Kendall “History” Hinds led us in a class of dancehall moves.
At Brooklyn Studios for Dance in Clinton Hill this spring, DCC had a series of distinctive dance classes, some on types of Caribbean dance not normally taught and virtually unknown to the wider world. I attended the first three: Michael Manswell on Trinidad stick fighting dance, Ilana “Illy” Warner on St. Kitts masquerade, and Rosalind October-Edun on Guyana masquerade. Both of these old masquerade traditions use fife and drum music and have elaborate, colorful, but different costumes whose aesthetics descend from West Africa, as do some of the steps and much of the movement style. But each has a different combination of moves, deriving from a particular cultural mix, which our teachers broke down and reassembled, providing much enjoyment and a fascinating contrast in the way dance cultures with similar ingredients diverge.
Candace Thompson trained from early childhood in Trinidad with Heather Henderson-Gordon, a Juilliard graduate whose school, La Danse Caraibe, instructs in many genres. In June, Henderson-Gordon came to the Our Caribbean Spirit New Traditions Festival 2017 to see what one of her star pupils is doing now. Twelve years ago, Thompson also journeyed north to get a BFA in dance from Adelphi University. She has danced with Crystal Brown and Sydnie L. Mosley among others, and continues to work with André Zachery’s Renegade, while creating her own choreography as ContempoCaribe. She did a Draft Work at Danspace Project this past spring, has a residence at Dixon Place in the fall, and will return to Danspace with Renegade.
DCC has a dozen DCC Lead Artists: dancers, choreographers, and teachers who coordinate programs and sometimes perform their work at the yearly festival. Another group of six, the DCC Powerhouse, works on marketing, publicity, and tech. And, of course, the annual dance festival requires a production team. This year Sydnie Mosley was the Production Manager; André Zachery the Technical Director and Stage Manager. DCC’s programs run from January to June, culminating in the performance festival.
Audiences kept growing at the Mark Morris Dance Center this June, until, on the final Sunday, they overflowed, and late-comers had to sit on the floor. The atmosphere was festive and communal and the dance works were rich in mixtures of Caribbean moves and modern dance. Such mixtures might be layered or become fused into an innovative individual contemporary dance style. Many pieces were packed with meaning—personal and cultural—often pointed though occasionally diffuse. There was excitement, but in general the tenor was more thoughtful than showy, even when soca was the principle dance vehicle.
Our Caribbean Spirit, the dance choreographed collaboratively by Thompson and the seven performers who had auditioned to be part of it, concluded the performances all three nights. Central to this project were videos of interviews and glimpses of dance—part of DCC’s research into traditions and legacy, from the Guyana Cultural Association, the St. Lucia Folklore Association (both in New York), and JayaDevi Arts, an Indo-Trinidadian group now in Florida.
The dancers come together and disperse to short bits of Caribbean music and their own declarations: “Only my body can tell you what’s inside. This is my story”; “My Caribbean spirit makes me dance, wraps me up. Brings me joy.” Dancers salute places such as Haiti or St. Kitts. They flow and shift, jump and revolve hips in moves that have a folkloric basis in the Caribbean or Africa, but become new combinations. Moving variously, they give a sense of their individual bodily voices. The eight other dances were given twice each, so that the three evenings had a different array of performances.
Maxine Montilus led off the dancing on Friday with What Can’t Be Denied, a reflection on the mix of Vodou and Christianity that pervades Haitian culture, even though some, like her parents, prefer to ignore Vodou. The spinal curves of Yanvalou, the dance of the loa Damballah, pervade this lovely, gentle piece, even as we hear a voiceover of parts of the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. A vevé-like pattern of a heart with a crown, split by a cross is projected. There are shifts into modern dance moves, and returns to Vodou, more undulations and jumps, curving arms and shifting zepaule shoulders, a kind of Vodou cassé with turns and lashings—the gentle quality is interrupted by occasional explosions, but returns with a final libation of the four corners of the space.
Marsha Parrilla/Danza Orgánica’s Melaza is a complex piece that deals with what it means to be a diasporic Puerto Rican from a colonized island. Six women and two men from this Boston-based contemporary dance theater company mix various modes and various moods, from a desperate scream and hysterical moves, to ironic tropes about the “land of the free” that move from bravado to wrenching sadness. There are cries of “Puerto Rico” and “Estados Unidos,” speech in English and Spanish, a few Afro-Cuban moves among more that reflect contemporary dance or a modern-Caribbean mixture. Group work devolves into solo moments, including a particularly anguished, forceful solo by one of the men. The sound of the coqui, the Puerto Rican tree frog that is an island symbol, is much heard, and danced to, in ways that differ but include frog-like crouches and jumps. The second night all this complication flowed more expressively.
Untold Narrative begins with a tortured solo on the floor to live djembe drumming, as a voice laments “losing a child” or declares “she put on a mask.” Alicia Dellimore returns in a white gown with a removable overskirt and a droopy white hat that usually hides her face, so that when we see it, the effect is intense. She is a very striking performer with her own unique combination of Afro-Caribbean and modern movements, with subtle isolations of hip or shoulders, shivers of leg or full body shudders. She is exploring the character of La Diablesse, the she-devil of the French-influenced southern Caribbean, with tales that differ from island to island—her background island is St. Vincent—but Dellimore mixes in real feeling, real problems with the mythical. There are some false endings that cloud a compelling arc; she dances a recovery, but reverts to sorrow with small shudders of pain.
The DCW Youth Performing Arts Company was founded in January, under the aegis of DCC and WIADCA (which puts on the Labor Day parade). Shola K. Roberts directs the group and choreographed—with input from Thompson and Valerie Mcleod-Katz—the lively piece we saw for eleven girls and one boy in red, black, and gold. Roberts is a dance education teacher at the School of Integrated Learning, a Brooklyn middle school, one of three schools from which the dancers came. In addition to her full-time job and her duties as a Lincoln Center Scholar finishing a master’s degree in arts education at Hunter College, Roberts, a Grenadan American, taught the DCW students not only dance, but about the history and culture of the Caribbean. Those who remained most dedicated performed a complex mix of African diaspora and Caribbean moves, a West African section, and contemporary soca, with lots of wining, arms and other body parts pumping out, and shouted words like “persistence,” “strength,” and “inspiration.” The group may participate in a celebration for this September’s fiftieth anniversary of the parade.
At first there’s a narrator speaking an essay on spirits and identity (“Spirits like this place”) behind Safi Harriott, who begins a subtle ritual dance, Sorry, Uncle Johnny. The music, from the Tamborine Army’s action in Kingston, Jamaica, is percussive; Harriott’s moves are quiet. She’s in white, with white braided into her hair and a basket of white flowers, moving in silence, then to Harry Belafonte singing a mento song, or a bell rhythm, or more silence, as she raises her eyes in a salute to spirits, and further honors them with pieces of bread, a circle of stones, and a flower garland she places on her brow. Her Jamaican body rocks and undulates. As the piece evolves, packed with possible meanings, it turns into a Caribbean ablution.
A solo-dancing child is part of Shermica Farquhar/Soka Tribe’s Tale of the Tribe. The Tribe, about a dozen strong, wear black tops and tights with red and purple loops and fringes over them. They dance briefly to a drummer, but mostly to recorded soca of the harder-edged contemporary sort, making complicated patterns interspersed with lots of wining. There is an African interlude, but it is the high-energy soca—with pivots, all kinds of isolations, and those wining hips—that produces the Tribe’s carnival vibe, leading off the Saturday performances.
Candace Thompson followed with kah-so dan-say to French Antillean zouk music. In silvery shirt and golden briefs, long-limbed Thompson dances with an expansive, powerful modern dance body, integrating Caribbean isolations, contractions, thrusting and arrowing arms, and slow and quick shifts of body into an idiom all her own. She’s a rich mover, sometimes evolving into unique movements, as she dances a Caribbean modern solo tour de force.
“She’s got my moves,” said a woman of Rosamond S. King dancing Tiney Winey. While King’s complex curves of torso and hip, her subtle, sometimes tiny winds, may be familiar, her presentation is marvelously distinctive. Totally sheathed in shiny gray blue, including her face, with a golden crest on her head and golden braids flying out, she dances in a circle of light to infectious soca by Byron Lee and The Dragonaires. She varies her wining smoothness with rocking jerks back and forth to the rhythm. Presenting a stick, she is a debonair and audacious masked figure, identified as a blue devil, a traditional Trinidadian carnival character, by Henderson-Gordon in the Q&A, to King’s assent.
Friday and Saturday’s performances ended with panels of the choreographers describing their work or interacting with the audience, but Sunday’s ended with a party. There was food on all nights, but more variety of delicious things like shrimp and codfish balls on Sunday. The terrace was crowded with talkers. A DJ played soca and people danced, led by Thompson. It was, as DCC members had hoped, a mixed, but strongly Caribbean audience. Festival attendees enjoyed the dance pieces, which likely reminded them of home and introduced new ways of moving and suggestive ideas. There was a wonderful warmth and feeling of unity and community to these three concerts.
SUSANNA SLOAT is the editor of Making Caribbean Dance: Continuity and Creativity in Island Cultures and Caribbean Dance from Abakua to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity.