Review of Judy Raymond’s “Beryl McBurnie” 

In “The life of La Belle Rosette: Normal rules did not apply,” Joel Julien (Trinidad and Tobago’s Guardian) reviews Judy Raymond’s Beryl McBurnie (Caribbean Biography Series, 2018), a detailed biography of the Trinidadian-born dancer.

“If the gov­ern­ment is sen­si­tive, they would re­alise that as Trinidad is slow­ly dy­ing, there is a great op­por­tu­ni­ty to save it, via Car­ifes­ta, God knows.” So stat­ed Beryl McBurnie in a let­ter to an un­named woman friend she called Mehzwee in No­vem­ber 1991 ac­cord­ing to a re­cent­ly pub­lished bi­og­ra­phy on the famed dancer writ­ten by Judy Ray­mond.

McBurnie wrote the let­ter to Mehzwee be­cause she has been asked to de­sign an open­ing cer­e­mo­ny for Car­ifes­ta V which was held in T&T in Au­gust 1992. These words writ­ten by McBurnie more than 27 years ago, how­ev­er, are still ap­plic­a­ble to­day as T&T, which record­ed 516 mur­ders last year, pre­pares to host Car­ifes­ta XIV in sev­en months time.

“Art and cul­ture are the ex­pres­sions of a cul­ture, it’s through art and cul­ture that we can see the spir­it, whether it is alive and mean­ing­ful or dead,” McBurnie is quot­ed in the bi­og­ra­phy as say­ing dur­ing a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view dur­ing the Car­ifes­ta held in Bar­ba­dos in 1981.

The McBurnie bi­og­ra­phy is part of the Caribbean Bi­og­ra­phy Se­ries from the Uni­ver­si­ty of the West In­dies Press which “cel­e­brates and memo­ri­alis­es the ar­chi­tects of Caribbean cul­ture.”

“The se­ries aims to in­tro­duce gen­er­al read­ers to those in­di­vid­u­als who have made ster­ling con­tri­bu­tions to the re­gion in their cho­sen field—lit­er­a­ture, the arts, pol­i­tics, sports—and are the shapers and bear­ers of Caribbean iden­ti­ty,” ac­cord­ing to its de­scrip­tion.

The se­ries, launched with a bi­og­ra­phy on Earl Lovelace, in­cludes ti­tles on Derek Wal­cott and Mar­cus Gar­vey. The McBurnie bi­og­ra­phy, the lat­est in the se­ries, was writ­ten by Ray­mond, Ed­i­tor in Chief at the T&T News­day news­pa­per.

The cov­er pho­to for the bi­og­ra­phy, tak­en by Carl Van Vecht­en, has McBurnie in an im­age rem­i­nis­cent of Mex­i­can artist Fri­da Kahlo. It was tak­en in the 1940s when McBurnie was per­form­ing in New York un­der the stage name Belle Rosette (Beau­ti­ful Lit­tle Rose).

McBurnie’s danc­ing can be wit­nessed “thanks to two sur­viv­ing scraps of film footage from her glo­ry days in New York,” the bi­og­ra­phy states. They are the on­ly vi­su­al record of her pro­fes­sion­al work in New York. Ac­cord­ing to the bi­og­ra­phy, those two videos high­light­ed that McBurnie, one of this coun­try’s most famed dancers, nev­er wined and dis­cour­aged her dancers from do­ing so al­so. “These ‘soundies’ il­lus­trate per­fect­ly McBurnie’s dancers’ lat­er com­ments on her style: she nev­er wined, and she dis­ap­proved of her dancers do­ing so. Her danc­ing was prop­er, and no doubt based on tra­di­tion­al steps, with no sug­ges­tive or erot­i­cal­ly in­clined moves,” it stat­ed. “In the films, she dances with tremen­dous con­fi­dence and an un­fal­ter­ing, gen­uine-look­ing smile, and cer­tain­ly pos­sess­es charis­ma: she is the dancer to whom one’s eyes are drawn, what­ev­er the oth­er two are do­ing, though her per­for­mance is sim­ple, brisk and cer­tain­ly not tech­ni­cal­ly spec­tac­u­lar. Nor does she make the slight­est at­tempt to por­tray a se­duc­tive ‘is­land girl’,” it stat­ed.

McBurnie was born in Trinidad and went to New York to study dance and dra­ma. [. . .]

On No­vem­ber 25, 1948, McBurnie had a grand open­ing of Lit­tle Carib The­atre at Num­ber 95 Roberts Street, Wood­brook which had orig­i­nal­ly been her fam­i­ly’s home. “Thus from ear­ly on, the Lit­tle Carib was more than just a per­for­mance space for dance: it was a cen­tre for all sorts of artis­tic ac­tiv­i­ty, dis­cus­sion and re­search, and McBurnie and oth­ers used it to fos­ter and en­cour­age oth­er arts and in­ter­est in the arts,” the bi­og­ra­phy stat­ed. [. . .]

McBurnie was award­ed the Or­der of the British em­pire in 1959; two na­tion­al awards from T&T—the Hum­ming Bird Gold Medal in 1969 and the coun­try’s high­est award, the Trin­i­ty Cross, in 1989; and an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from the St Au­gus­tine cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of the West In­dies in 1976. [. . .]

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