Introduction to the country and its contemporary dance
The independent twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is the southernmost island nation of the Caribbean island chain. Its human history begins with the ancient cultures of the Amerindians, and, after explorations and colonial incursions by the Spanish, French, Dutch and English, the country is now home to a variety of ethnicities, the largest groups of which are people of West African descent and people of East Indian descent. Additional ethnicities include Arab and Chinese and all of the mixes in between. The population is 1.3 million and the capital city is Port of Spain. The second largest city is San Fernando. The majority of concert dance activity takes place in these two cities.
Trinidad and Tobago’s economy is largely based on energy; deposits of oil and natural gas are currently being commercially exploited. Trinidadians also invented the steelpan and, by extension, the steel orchestra - the only family of acoustic instruments to be invented in the twentieth century. The country is world-renowned for its annual Carnival that takes place right before Lent in the Christian calendar (February or March of each year, identical to Brazil).
There are several other festivals which are, like Carnival, often rooted in tradition, religion or ethnicity, or a combination thereof. Examples are Ram Leela, Hosay, Divali, and the Dragon Boat Race. Many have spiritually significant dances attached to them that have been performed for generations. Documentation on all forms of dance, however, remains scarce.
Since the days of the Amerindians, through the colonial period and to the present, traditional dances of the Caribs, Arawaks, Tainos, and Warrahoons, as well as those of West Africa, Northern India and various parts of Europe have factored into the dance life of Trinidad and Tobago. It was in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, when ballet was the only formally taught dance (and taught only to a certain sector of society), that world-famous pioneers like Beryl Mc Burnie and Boscoe Holder brought the folk dances of the villages on to the stage - in Trinidad and Tobago and beyond. The scope and access of formal dance opened up significantly after that. Then, in the 1970s and 80s, modern dance pioneer Astor Johnson took things a step further and fused Graham- and Horton-based modern dance with traditional movement.
Other young modern dance performers and choreographers of the time, such as Carol La Chapelle and Noble Douglas, who were trained both in Trinidad and Tobago and abroad, came to prominence in the 1970s under Astor Johnson’s Repertory Dance Theatre and later with their own dance companies. Both maintain their careers in dance as teachers, choreographers and artistic directors. In the 1980s and 1990s, many other young dancers got opportunities to go away to further their dance ambitions; many studied at Juilliard and the Ailey School in New York.
Nowadays we can say in general that contemporary dance remains elusive. The more easily accepted performance aesthetic (with few exceptions) is classic modern such as Graham- and Horton- based choreography, with some excursions into jazz.
Main contexts for presentation
There are no annual dance festivals in Trinidad and Tobago. Any truly established festival tends to be for music - especially music of the steelpan.
There are sometimes opportunities for local dance companies to participate in regional festivals, such as CARIFESTA (Caribbean Festival of the Creative Arts), which is a CARICOM (Caribbean Community), government-to-government initiative that happens sporadically - every two, three or four years - in a different CARICOM country. Again, the government tends to choose performing companies in traditional dance for these excursions. Both local and non-traditional local dance companies sometimes get a chance to participate in other dance festivals elsewhere in the Caribbean or beyond but this is also infrequent.
There is also the Prime Minister’s Best Village Trophy Competition, a government initiative, started in 1963, that hosts a series of competitions around the country that aim to preserve the various traditional songs and dances of the nation. In the Best Village Dance Competition, there is a category called “Interpretive Dance” which allows modern and contemporary dance forms to compete.
Foreign groups who visit Trinidad and Tobago usually present their work at the Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain or at Naparima Bowl in San Fernando.
About the companies and dance movement
The dance practitioners in general are very dedicated to their work, but are realistic about the financial environment for dance. All artistic directors, to the writer’s knowledge, have other non-performance-related income-earning activities and, when they are involved in dance performance, operate as semi-professional companies which produce as much work as they can within their financial and human resource constraints. There may be years when some companies go dormant, and then they begin their creative work again when they have enough resources to do so. The leading Trinidad and Tobago dance company for young people, Metamorphosis, is directed by Nancy Herrera who studied abroad and returned as a dance teacher; other dance companies in this context are Continuum, Standing Room Only, Metamorphosis, the Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Theatre and NDDCI.
A few companies invite local and international contemporary choreographers to mount work on local dancers.
Most of the companies and choreographers work on classic modern aesthetics. There are however, two choreographers - Sonja Dumas and Dave Williams - who consistently work in the contemporary aesthetic. Each has their separate projects, but they have also collaborated in the past. Both are based in Port of Spain.
Some Trinidad and Tobago dancers have gone on to careers in American companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Martha Graham Company, Garth Fagan, Elise Monte and others. Still others went to Europe and established their dance careers there - mainly in jazz.
Cultural policies for dance
In general, there is a problem with funding for dance of any type. Although the country is relatively wealthy, the need to support local dance performances beyond the Best Village initiative is not often seen by the government. Also, with some exceptions, many corporate people often do not see the definitive line between stage performances and Carnival performances of the street, and therefore do not see the need to fund stage dance, especially when the returns to the corporate sector are often greater if the corporation sponsors a Carnival band, with thousands of people, as opposed to a dance concert, where only a few hundred might attend. As a result, most dance companies are highly entrepreneurial and operate as part-time, semi-professional enterprises since they are not regularly funded. They usually have to compete actively for funds from corporate Trinidad and Tobago, and might sometimes be lucky to get a small, sporadic government grant. These funds are usually used to produce a short (three-day), local season of work and/or a brief tour, if the funding is sufficient.
The government does provide infrastructure for performances, however; the two main theatres – Queen’s Hall and Naparima Bowl - are statutory bodies, maintained by the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs. Construction of two more, larger facilities - the Port of Spain National Academy for the Performing Arts and the San Fernando National Academy for the Performing Arts – is underway.
A relatively new statutory body, the Trinidad and Tobago Entertainment Company Limited, is an organization that gives grants to performing artists of all types to promote their work abroad.
About dance training
The main private dance schools/training initiatives with dedicated infrastructure (i.e., studios of their own) are the ones that concentrate mainly on ballet, modern, jazz and ballroom. They are the Caribbean School of Dancing, the Bentley Potter School of Dance, Linda Pollard-Lake Studios, La Danse Caraïbe, the Lambert School of Dance, the Trinidad Dance Theatre and the Tobago Academy of Performing Arts. Smaller enterprises also exist. The school that has generated the greatest number of professional dance practitioners (performers, teachers, and choreographers) in its fifty-one-year-old history is the Caribbean School of Dancing.
Within the last five years, more university-level dance programmes have been offered, such as the Certificate Programme in Dance and Dance Education of the University of the West Indies (UWI) (see more at http://sta.uwi.edu/fhe/ccfa). Programmes for dance at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) are due to come on stream in the near future, so it is hoped that the country’s dance development – particularly in the contemporary area – will benefit, and that more opportunities to explore alternative dance forms will emerge.
Many who leave Trinidad and Tobago are already trained at high levels and have received certification from the Royal Academy of Dance and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, so they leave equipped to handle advanced levels of ballet and modern dance, and easily fit into other styles.
Text by Sonja Dumas, August 2008