Rex Nettleford: Caribbean Man of Dance


Howard Campbell (Jamaica Observer) writes a short piece tracing the professional trajectory of choreographer, historian, and cultural exponent Rex Nettleford. As the Observer points out, this is the 13th in their daily series “highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage.” The Observer is featuring one personality each day, culminating on Independence Day on August 6.  Campbell writes:

There was fever-pitch excitement as Jamaica prepared for independence from Great Britain in 1962. The time was right for mavericks and visionaries.

Rex Nettleford fit the bill perfectly.

Just before independence in August, Nettleford and Eddie Thomas formed the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), which became the standard for creative dance in the Caribbean. Nettleford and Thomas cut their teeth in the Eurocentric Ivy Baxter group. They wanted their new group to reflect their African heritage. “Eddy was very modern and Rex was into folk, but they wanted to develop a dance that was very Jamaican,” Bert Rose, one of the NDTC’s original dancers, said in a 2012 interview with the Jamaica Observer.

Born in rural Trelawny, Rex Nettleford was special. A Rhodes Scholar, he graduated from Oxford University determined to make a mark in colonial Jamaica. He wanted to express himself through various forms, including dance. In a 1997 interview with the Observer, Nettleford commented on the NDTC’s early focus. “We wanted to define an expression that is clearly reflected in the movement of Jamaica and the Caribbean, an aesthetic based on the shape of the Caribbean body,” he said.

He and Thomas created most of the six original NDTC pieces: Pocomania, Plantation Revelry, Footnotes In Jazz, and A Time To Rejoice.

Nettleford was a Caribbean man, with strong ties to the trade union movement, politics, and his beloved University of the West Indies — which he served in several roles, including vice chancellor.

He wrote Mirror, Mirror, a 1969 book that takes a comprehensive look at race in Jamaica. In 1975, the Jamaican Government acknowledged his accomplishments by awarding Nettleford the Order of Merit.

Rex Nettleford, dance choreographer, academic, historian, authority on all things Caribbean, died on February 2, 2010 in Washington DC, one day before his 77th birthday.

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