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close this bookThe Courier N° 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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Dancing to a Jamaican tune

Interview by Simon HORNER
A profile of Professor Rex Nettleford

Rex Nettleford is, to use an old-fashioned expression, a 'man of parts'- one of those people whose diverse interests and activities and whose boundless energy prompt admiration and amazement in equal measure.

On reflection, 'boundless' is an unsuitable adjective. For Rex Nettleford is a dancer-as well as being a university professor, historian, trade union activist, choreographer, director, author and all-round cultural oracle.

The Courier met this remarkable man in his office at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, where he is Professor of Continuing Studies and Pro-Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for outreach and institutional relations. A historian by training, his studies included a period as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University and his current teaching timetable embraces history, politics and culture. but the achievement for which he is particularly renowned is his central role -over thirty years-in the famous Jamaica National Dance Theatre Company

The NDTC came into being in 1962 and the young Rex Nettleford was one of the leading lights in the group which helped to set it up. The inspiration behind the company is perhaps best summed up by the professor's own words, taken from the brochure which was published to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary.

'In setting ourselves the task of finding our own voices (or should l say feet ?) in the art of dance, we have from the beginning pledged ourselves to forging a vocabulary, technique and style rooted in the realities of Jamaican and wider Caribbean life. This has in no way ruled out the fertilising energy of discoveries from other civilisations. But we have been very aware that none but ourselves can... find ourselves. '

Over three decades, the company has certainly succeeded in forging a uniquely Jamaican vocabulary, technique and style -which has been critically acclaimed throughout the world. Indeed, one measure of the success of this still essentially amateur group, is to be found in the 'roll-call' of international venues where it has performed while on tour.

The dance forms evolved at the NDTC do not, however, necessarily fit a single mould or concept. The cultural currents and eddies which have swirled in and out of the Caribbean Sea for centuries have created a kaleidescope where elements of the different original influences mingle, but can still be identified.

Nor are the dances always comfortable to the eye. As Nettleford, who has himself danced in many productions as well as choreographing and directing various works, points out; 'where being 'entertaining' demands little more than what is expected of traditional minstrelsy we recoil from such an easy and demeaning route'. High standards indeed, and ones which do not always equate with commercial success. But the NDTC refuses to 'compromise its vision' and it is worth noting that it has succeeded over the years without direct government subsidy.

The success of the NDTC would have made an interesting subject on its own for an interview, but when Professor Nettleford spoke to The Courier, he chose to tackle a broader canvass, revealing in the process the eclectic nature of his interests. He spoke of Jamaica's economic problems, concerns about social justice and equality but above all about 'an intense engagement in the exercise of creative imagination' which has arguably made Jamaica the cultural capital of the Caribbean. He stressed the impact of his own small island on the popular music of the wider world, referring in particular to Bob Marley as a 'global force'. But even this, he argued, was only 'the tip of the iceberg' with a great deal more happening on the ground in Jamaica.

He went on to refer to the 'excellent partnership which exists between the government and the people' in the field of cultural endeavour, not forgetting the private sector which had always played a role in helping the arts. The collective experience of the Jamaican people had been a 'tremendous source of energy' and the result was a strong sense of cohesion in civil society.

The Professor also spoke about another of Jamaica's unique cultural events- the Pantomime-which had not 'missed a day since 1941'. This event, which bears a certain resemblance to the fairy-tale performances familiar to Englishspeakers in Europe, is a highly popular musical comedy which satirises local situations and people. Jamaican folklore supplies many of the characters and Jamaican music features prominently.

One of the reasons for abundance of cultural activity in Jamaica, Nettleford believes, is the fact that the people have traditionally 'soughs to honour achievers in the area of creative intellect and imagination'.

Finally, when asked about the (pernicious?) influence of American culture, the professor was surprisingly sanguine. He spoke of the challenge to develop organic alternatives but also was keen to point out that Jamaican reggae had gone out into the world. In short, he saw no objection to cross-cultural pollination. Or as he put it; 'by all means, put fertiliser to the soil. All we have to do is to make sure that the fertiliser does not become the soil'. S.H.