Rex Nettleford: A Remembrance

When professor Rex Nettleford brought his National Dance Theatre Company to perform at the Reichhold Center for the Arts, it was in its 34th year of operation. It cost a small fortune to fly some 30-plus persons from Jamaica, but UVI took the wise position that no self-respecting center for the arts in the Caribbean should have to admit it had never hosted a performance by the NDTC of Jamaica.
In trying to explain how the NDTC managed to survive for so long in a region where a 5th anniversary is a major milestone for any performing arts company, the professor said slowly, “I think it’s because I took time to lay a proper foundation. I took time to institutionalize the group. To, as it were, shield it in institution.”
By way of further explanation he recalled seeing a performance in Jamaica, around the time he was starting the NDTC, by the dance company of the famed choreographer Beryl MacBernie of Trinidad. “I had never seen anything quite so stunning,” he said, “The energy, the excitement, the colors, the frills, the frou-frou – magical!” It made him question himself, pounder if he was doing the right thing with his own dance company. But he said he knew in his heart even then that in the end it wouldn’t be the frou-frou that mattered but the sustainability of the company.
No one should go back to see a dance company after having first seen it at a young, impressionable age, because the mind plays tricks. I first saw the NDTC in Jamaica in 1970. Close to 30 years later that performance was mythical, never to be outdone. So at breakfast the day after the NDTC’s wonderful Reichhold performance, I took what I now hope were two gentle jabs at the professor.
First I asked if he didn’t think the NDTC had been held back by never becoming a professional company? He parried skillfully. No, he didn’t think so at all. He thought of the company as professional. Members weren’t paid because the company had little means by which to pay, so would have died if money had become the basis for its existence or for participating in it. Nonetheless, professionalism was demanded and given. And many members who danced professionally remained members and returned each year to perform with the NDTC or to teach. He thought the money element could eat at the heart of the company, corroding its cohesiveness.
Next I asked if he didn’t think the senior dance segment of the program was too long? Again, he said no. It was an important and valued segment because it added depth and dimension and context.
As was so often the case with the professor, it took a while to grasp his full lesson. He had built a dance company with a universal outreach, rooted deeply in the ‘Caribbeanness’ he championed for a lifetime. This company was where a lot of his ideas about the importance to the arts — to any society — lived. This company reflected a greater Caribbean sensibility. Societies that push people out to pasture, that deny members a place of dignity once past their prime, sabotage themselves.
And after all, in the end, it’s not the frou-frou but the long-term sustainability that matters.

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