Caribbean island’s National Dance Theatre Company dedicates Toronto show, Tribute to Rex, to arts lover Ralston Milton ‘Rex’ Nettleford, Michael Crabb of Toronto’s Star reports.
Jamaicans respect their heritage, which explains why the Caribbean island’s National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), returning to Toronto for the first time since 1999, is calling its program Tribute to Rex.
As Jamaican cultural heroes go, the late Ralston Milton “Rex” Nettleford remains iconic. An intellectual, academic and former Rhodes Scholar, Rex Nettleford rose to become vice-chancellor of the Univer’Tribute to Rex’ sity of the West Indies. He was also a social activist whose belief in post-colonial Jamaica’s potential was unbounded.
As an arts lover since his youth – Nettleford sang, danced and choreographed – he viewed artistic expression as a powerful agent in forging a sense of nationhood. Thus, in 1962, the year of Jamaican independence from Britain, he co-founded NDTC with pioneering Jamaican dancer and teacher Eddy Thomas. Nettleford remained the Kingston-based troupe’s artistic director for almost half a century until his death at age 76. Two of his best-loved works are included in a Toronto program that draws from five decades of choreographic innovation.
“He was a creative genius,” says Vivine Scarlett, founder-director of Toronto’s Dance Immersion, an organization that produces and supports dance of the African diaspora.
Scarlett had a chance to meet Nettleford one-to-one when he last visited Toronto in 2007 as the keynote speaker at that year’s annual conference of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, hosted by Dance Immersion.
“He was a perfectionist,” says Scarlett. “He was all about excellence. And for him it was more than just dance. It was about instilling a particular history, embodying a certain kind of knowledge. And, of course, he was a mentor to so many.”
Prominent among those is Barry Moncrieffe, who first danced with NDTC in its inaugural season.
“Rex was my first teacher,” says Moncrieffe. “He was a one-of-a-kind-person.”
Like many Jamaican dancers of his generation aspiring to a professional career, Moncrieffe left his homeland to further his training abroad. For him, it was the Martha Graham School in New York. He’d hoped to join the celebrated troupe of black American choreographer Alvin Ailey. When he didn’t make the cut, Moncrieffe returned to Jamaica and committed himself to NDTC, a troupe often described as a Caribbean counterpart of the Ailey company. When Nettleford died in 2010, Moncrieffe was the natural successor.
Moncrieffe recalls an era when NDTC always seemed to be touring – Australia, Europe, Latin America. Nowadays, as almost any non-profit performing arts group will tell you, touring has become a prohibitively expensive proposition.
Under the auspices of Seth George Ramocan, Jamaica’s consul general in Toronto, organizing committee chair Camille Hines has been working hard for several years to bring NDTC back to Canada.
“Essentially, this is a private initiative and a very expensive undertaking,” says Hines. She hopes Toronto’s large Jamaican-Canadian community, along with the city’s sizeable audience of dance fans, will grasp the rare opportunity to see a troupe whose repertoire comprises the precision and clean lines of ballet as well as the earthy, visceral power of dance drawn from African rhythms and traditions. There’s even choreography to reggae music.
To reach the level of professionalism and versatility that has won NDTC international acclaim, company members have to train and rehearse in the evenings and on weekends. Jamaica, about twice the area of PEI but with almost 20 times the population, does not have the resources to fund a fulltime, professional dance troupe.
“There just isn’t a lot of public money,” explains Moncrieffe, who apart from his dance activities has long been a noted Jamaican fashion designer.
“Everybody has another job. To be part of this company involves a lot of sacrifice,” says Moncrieffe. “You absolutely have to love what we do.”
It’s the physical and spiritual commitment involved that makes a NDTC performance more than just a dance show. It’s a statement of national pride expressed in dance, music and song by one of Jamaica’s leading cultural ambassadors.
Tribute to Rex is at the Sony Centre, 1 Front St. E., Nov. 4. http://www.sonycentre.ca or 1-855-872-7669.
For the original report go to http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2014/11/01/jamaican_dancers_in_toronto_to_honour_legend_nettleford.html