By A.D. McKenzie
KINGSTON, Jamaica, Aug 07 2017 (IDN | SWAN) – Dance has long been a potent force among the arts in Jamaica, with pioneering companies such as Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theatre Company holding a mirror up to society and promoting Caribbean culture.
Now students are taking the genre to a whole new level with powerful, socially relevant performances.
The island’s top high school, Campion College, is one of the institutions leading the way. Now in its seventh season, the school’s Dance Society performed to packed audiences in Kingston in July with its “Roots” production, which addressed issues such as violence against women and the challenges young people face in building confidence and self-esteem.
Comprising riveting choreography, vibrant costumes, ingenious stage sets and an eclectic selection of music, the show at the landmark Little Theatre also marked Jamaica’s 55th anniversary of independence from Britain. Dancers wearing the colours of the national flag – black, green and gold – leapt through the air as they portrayed the country’s tradition of sporting excellence in a piece entitled “In Our Lane”, choreographed by Renee McDonald.
Of the pieces performed, however, perhaps the most memorable was a depiction of gender-based violence, and an appeal for it to end. This segment, titled “Misogyny (2017)” featured a mesmeric solo by Shade Thaxter, depicting a strong young woman with her future stretching before her. Then came a shocking scene that brought home the extent to which young people, both girls and boys, are affected by the level of aggression in society.
The music for this work employed lyrics from the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by American writer Maya Angelou, as well as excerpts of the song “Strength of a Woman” by Jamaican performer Shaggy.
Despite the sombre moments, “Roots” overall was an infectious celebration – of heritage, ancestry, culture and the numerous achievements of a young nation.
According to Principal Grace Baston, the students “as much as possible are involved in the creative process with the selection of themes and the music”, under the guidance of artistic director Dwright Wright, a teacher at the school.
“In this … year, we are being called to reflect on origins, those of our Dance Society as well as those of our nation – hence the most apt title ‘Roots’,” Baston said.
The 64 dancers in the troupe range in age from 11 to 20 years old. For “Roots”, the artistic team and resident choreographers included Oraine Frater and Orville McFarlane, both dancers with the L’Acadco Dance Company, another strong professional company in Jamaica.
Guest choreographers were Marlon Simms from the NDTC as well as Steven Cornwall and Chester Jones, both freelance dancehall choreographers. Superb lighting design that enhanced the dances was created by Baston’s husband Robin – an architect and theatre director. He oversaw the technical aspects of the production, and his manipulation of the sets added to the show’s impact.
The Campion College Dance Society’s stated mission is to “bridge mind and body through dance”, but with their performances, they go beyond this, inviting the audience on a journey of reflection and discovery, as they build on Jamaica’s dance tradition.
“We can send messages through movement,” Wright said.
At the end of the final show, both he and Baston paid tribute to Rex Nettleford who founded the NDTC in 1962 (the year that Jamaica gained its independence) and to current artistic director Barry Moncrieffe. Some of Campion’s dancing graduates have already found a home in that iconic company.
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