Thu | Dec 5, 2019

To Sir, with love - Dancers unite in benefit show for ­ailing ­artistic ­director Tony Wilson

Published:Friday | November 15, 2019 | 12:08 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson

“Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone. But in my mind, I know they will still live on and on. But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume? It isn’t easy but I’ll try.”

These are the lyrics sung by Lulu in the song To Sir with Love that served as the title track for the 1967 British drama film of the same name. It is the first song that comes to mind when one thinks of the efforts of the members of the 31-year-old Company Dance Theatre (CDT) as they have spent months preparing for a season of dance in honour of Tony Wilson.

Wilson, the artistic director and founder of CDT and the Tony Wilson School of Modern Dance, like the teacher character Mark Thackeray, played by award-­winning actor Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love, has a method of intervention that instils discipline, warmth, and passion as he imparts knowledge. Coincidentally, he is affectionately called ‘Sir’ by past and present students.

Senior dancer Nicole Hall shares: “I was a dance studio baby; Sir would be teaching the company, which included my mother, Terry Hall, and I would be in his arms. He is close to our family sometimes I joke that he is my grandfather.”

She adds: “There is no one that has walked away without a sense of discipline, personally and professionally. If there is one thing I have learnt from him, [it] is to be disciplined, next to knowing a sense of time, commitment, and the value of being passionate.”

SENSE OF URGENCY

Obviously, when news broke that Wilson had suffered a severe haemorrhagic stroke in June, Hall and her family felt a sense of urgency to provide some form of support.

“I wanted to know where he was …, to be with him. His ­recovery has been slow but steady, ­showing significant improvement, and while the general fear was about him returning to teach, his energy is up, and with everyone’s ­encouragement, it has helped him to recover faster … . Sir will ­definitely be teaching again,” says an emotional Hall to The Gleaner.

Similarly, Steven Cornwall, a dance tutor and a principal ­member of CDT for the last seven years, says that he was devastated: “The initial thought was that we could have lost him. Knowing him to be an active source of energy that was always teaching, seeing him out of commission is disturbing.”

For this reason, dancers from CDT, in collaboration with the junior ensemble of the School of Modern Dance, are using this year’s show, named ‘Meraki’, as a way to express their gratitude and to honour the artistic director. ‘Meraki’ translates to doing something with soul, creativity or love, which all the dancers agree that Wilson has always done when it came to his work and students. He also recently received a national award, the Order of Distinction, for his contributions to dance in Jamaica.

Meraki is not the traditional season of dance; instead, it is being hosted as a one-night benefit dance presentation at The Little Theatre on Sunday, November 17, with all proceeds going towards Wilson’s medical expenses. The National Dance Theatre Company, Dance Theatre Xaymaca, L’Acadco: A United Caribbean Dance Force, and Stella Maris Dance Ensemble were invited to give guest performances.

“Being part of the show means a great deal for me, not just performing, it is like I am giving back to him for the service he has dedicated to me and the dance community. I may have learnt technique as a student of Edna Manley’s School of Dance, but it was him that taught me about performance – the ways to command a stage. This is the greatest gift we can give,” notes Cornwall.

“The pieces selected by the company for the show are all choreographed by Sir exclusively from ‘Colours’, ‘Prisms’, and ‘Calabash’ so, as usual, I am expecting it to be a classic display of talent that a lot of people will come to support and leave feeling a sense of pleasure,” affirms Shari Jackson, another principal dancer who also takes on the role of one of the co-rehearsal mistresses.

She started learning dance in Wilson’s School of Modern Dance at the age of three and was promoted to the company level at age 14, and she praises the artistic director for effectively fostering her ability to express herself on stage over the 16 years she has been with the company.

“I was disheartened by Sir’s stroke and did not know what to do in the moment, but even in the hospital, he was acting like himself, which relaxed me. Sir’s energy will be evident in the fluidity of the dances, as well as the technique and talent of the dancers that have either been students or have worked with him over the years.”

stephanie.lyew@gleanerjm.com