Dancer/writer Nicole Bain interviews Jamaican choreographer and dancer Stefanie Thomas.
Last week the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC), along with the general communities of dance and academia, paused to celebrate the life and legacy of Professor, the Honourable Ralston "Rex" Nettleford. One of the mantras for which the Professor was known was “Renewal and Continuity”, and one of the ideas he implemented in this vein was the Young Choreographers workshop/showcase. Formed several years ago to give a voice to budding dance composers within the NDTC, the showcase is held once every two years in December and has become a well-supported undertaking - anticipated by patrons as much as the company’s regular season. Some of the pieces coming out of the workshops have gone on to be included in the company’s repertoire. The 2010 showcase featured choreography from company dancers Marlon Simms, Kerry-Ann Henry, Kevin Moore, Tovah-Marie Bembridge, Tamara Thomas, Natalie Chung, Terry Ann Dennison, Benton Morris and Stefanie Thomas. Cultural Jamaica Magazine sat down with Stefanie recently to reflect on her journey as a young dancer and choreographer.
Dancer, choreographer Stefanie Thomas (photo contributed)
CULTURAL JAMAICA: How long have you been a dancer and how did you end up dancing with the NDTC?
STEFANIE THOMAS: I started ballet as a bee buzzing across Ward Theatre’s stage at 3 years old with Norma Spence at the Ballet Centre and continued ballet until my teenage years. I took my first modern class with Barry Moncrieffe as a teenager at the Jamaica School of Dance (Edna Manley). After taking a few years’ break from formal dancing I rediscovered a love for it with modern dance teacher Jane Schwartz at Colgate University, my alma mater. After graduation from Colgate and while pursuing further studies at the University of the West Indies, I started taking classes at the Edna Manley School of Dance, and in November of 2005 Arsenio Andrade invited me to take a class with the NDTC, whereafter Professor Nettleford encouraged me to continue taking classes with the company.
Bob Marley is perhaps the most well-known Jamaican that there is and people come from all around the globe to visit his homes and his burial site in Jamaica. His music is legendary. Had he been alive, this year he would have celebrated his 66th birthday. As it was we celebrated it for him in his absence.
February 6 saw us in Trench Town listening to his sons Damian and Stephen Marley and a whole slew of acts from and around the community. Trench Town has a character all its own which I am just now uncovering. It is certainly worth a visit even if it is just to see where Bob spent many of his formative years and to check out the source of the inspiration of many of his songs. Some of his lines are so poignant they evoke tears, others just so descriptive that you get the clearest picture. I remember reading somewhere (it may have been in Kwame Dawes' Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius) that no less a person than Derek Walcott was envious that he was not the one to write the line "my feet is my only carriage" in No Woman, Nuh Cry. I have several favourite Bob Marley songs. When I was a child, not quite ten, I would sit and play my father's records and I loved Redemption Song. The music was hypnotic and although I may not have understood the full import of the words I new without a doubt they were important and meaningful. Today, many years later, my favourite line may be the one to the right from Babylon System. For me personally as I close out my 3os, rebelling is an important concept as it becomes an even more fearful thing. Also the notion of Jamaica as a rebellious country that somehow in 2011 is not rebelling enough is frustrating and scary. It makes me wonder if we are all waiting to see what will be the spark that will set everything ablaze in this Babylon Sytem.
In addition to being able to write lyrics like those in Babylon System which give you pause, Marley is also perhaps the most famous Rastafarian there is, notwithstanding his conversion to the Ethiopian Orthodox faith before he died (http://www.jamaicans.com/culture/rasta/interview_AbundaYesehaq.shtml). A great deal of his music was about the teachings of Rasta. His music in fact that went a long way towards spreading the message of Rastafarianism and in the long run, giving it a sort of cool, maybe even some respectability, that it lacked when the movement first surfaced in the 1930s.
Rastafarianism began in Jamaican in a time of great economic difficulties for many of the country's people. The religion of Rasta, although it has many African and Christian features, is a genuinely Jamaican product. Like Mr. Marley himself. He was born of a white man and a black woman at once reflecting the tensions in Jamaican society between the ruling class and the masses. He represents rural Jamaica as well as urban Jamaica. In his lifetime he was depressingly poor and relatively rich. Bob Marley may have had dreams of Africa but he was definitely one of ours.
To Bob: a complicated, brilliant Jamaican. Happy birthday!
Jamaica Cultural Enterprises provides cultural tours which include stops relating to Bob Marley and his music. For more information email email@example.com
Vybz Kartel (photo courtesy of FB page)
Adijah “Vybz Kartel” Palmer, one of Jamaica’s most popular dancehall artistes announced last year that he plans to launch a line of cake soap for the skin, apparently called Vybz Kartel Cake Soap. For those unfamiliar, cake soap is a solid, cheap, blue, almost brick looking detergent that is used by the majority of households in Jamaica, if not the Caribbean, to wash clothes by hand. So it is a little hilarious. Cake soap for the face? (A suitable North American parallel might be frothing your skin with All or Tide.) It seems like a gag product, the dancehall equivalent of fuzzy stuffed snakes springing out of the peanut brittle can. You almost feel as though Kartel is at home sniggering to himself as the collective blood pressure of Jamaicans rises.
Vybz Kartel (photo courtesy of FB page)
It is also a little sad. Why? Because on the surface at least it seems as if the French got it right: “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Not only has Kartel launched his own cake soap, he has also admitted (sort of) to bleaching. Bleaching is the act of deliberately lightening skin. This seems to have come as a shock to many across the world, and his comparing his skin lightening to a white person darkening their skin by tanning has many aghast (see youtube video below - approx. minute 3). This admission of intentionally striving for a fairer complexion brought again to the forefront the whole issue of identity, race, and class in Jamaica, issues that have the power to get us hot under the collar. It may be difficult to comprehend the depth of feeling around the issues being ventilated so here is my attempt at breaking it down.