5 May 2024

National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica - Mixed Bill

A rare and welcome visit to Leicester’s LDIF international dance festival from Jamaica’s national company, a company with a particularly diverse selection of original work…

Kerry-Ann Henry in National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica publicity shot. © jamiebarnett photography.Kerry-Ann Henry in National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica publicity shot. © jamiebarnett photography.

National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica
Mixed Bill of works and excerpts
Leicester, The Curve
4 May 2024

The headline visitors to this year’s Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF) were the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC). Seldom seen in the UK, they are a national company like no other I’m aware of and played to a full house, composed for the most part of the Jamaican diaspora travelling from far across the UK to be there. Sadly, at just two nights, it’s an all-too-short visit, and the company deserves to be seen more widely.

When I say the company is like no other, here is why, in their own words:

The National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) is a voluntary group of dancers, singers, musicians and creative technicians who are dedicated to the view that their work in the dance can help to bring discipline, a sense of process and cultural awareness to the awesome task of nation-building. Described as one of the most innovative dance companies to have achieved world acclaim in the last half century, the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) of Jamaica blends the lore, music and dance traditions of Jamaica, Africa and the American South with both modern and classical ballet forms.”

Or as Pawlet Brookes - head of Serendipity who conceived and has made LDIF happen these last 14 years and should be much applauded for it - succinctly says, (NDTC are about)… showcasing a fantastic mixed bill of works inspired by dance hall, Kumina and contemporary movement.”

My takeaway from the 100-minute show, comprising an almost bewildering number of works/excerpts, plus music & film interludes, is the HUGE span of their custom-made repertoire. In an otherwise comprehensive LDIF programme booklet it would have been nice if the words could have stretched to give a brief thumbnail sketch of the context of each piece and the running order. A stage manager announcement at the start of the night recited the long list of all the works being performed but you’d have had to be highly skilled in Pitman’s shorthand (in the dark!) to stand any chance of taking it all in. But, of course, we should be so lucky to have so much work to see.

The dancers are a happy mix of ages, and the overall vibe is of a real community (they all have day jobs, for example) coming together professionally to share their dance dedication/enjoyment as they capture the spirit of their island’s past, present and future. But the company is not just about dance - there is also a delightful integration of live music (read drums/percussion) and singers into the onstage action.

For me, the span of the company was best typified by the final two pieces they performed. Circa 2K dates from last year and is all about female empowerment. For nine dancers, this had a strong urban and percussive feel as the dancers strutted and shimmied, defying any man to refer to them as anything other than equals. I loved the energy and almost exhausting insistence of giving each lady a solo, along with its celebration of pulsating group power. It is a terrific way to deliver on the company’s nation-building aspirations, as was 2002’s Unbroken with a similar proud female power affirming vibe.

Kumina, the final work on the bill, dates from 1971 (early in the life of NDTC) and honours Jamaica’s African roots to a thunderous drumming and chanting score that never lets up. The dance never lets up either as lines of energetically stamping and shuffling dancers appear, impress with their unison and are gone as another swathe swiftly enters. It includes a traditional stick dance (much macho enthusiasm from the men in the company) and is led out by a King and Queen with caricature crowns and lots of high kicking, deep bows and prancing. There is probably a PhD to be done on the symbolism, but it’s also a hugely elemental spectacle and, joy of joys, like nothing else I’ve ever seen. It might celebrate a dim-distant past, but Kumina’s full-on energy and spirit is uplifting and from a company Jamaica should be, and is, rightly proud of.