Monika Lawrence: 'We have a unique culture and all we need to do is to draw on others to enrich ours. Our identification with things African has helped us to realise that what we have is special." - Contributed
Justin Whyte speaks with Monika Lawrence, dancer, choreographer, artistic director and Stella Maris Dance co-ordinator, who has taught for over 18 years. Mrs. Lawrence, a graduate of the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI), York University, USA, and the Jamaica School of Dance, is now pursuing an M.Phil. degree in Philosophy in Cultural Studies at the UWI.
Q: You have just completed a season of dance titled 'Ola-Bisi', dedicated entirely to Africa. How did you arrive at this idea and what is the meaning of the title?
A: Ola-Bisi means joyfully multiplying in dance and music. The African culture has, over the years, helped to shape the Jamaican culture and indeed the Caribbean region, and we always look to all the different cultures that influence ours. The African culture seems to have the greatest impact on us. It was not just enough to show African authentic movements, but to bring more forcefully its impact in terms of cultural expression.
Q: How easy was it for you, being a foundation member of the National Dance Theatre Company and with a background of classical and modern dance training, to communicate to the dancers a vocabulary that differs from ours in many ways?
A: It was quite easy. I am associated with Wycliffe Bennett and Professor Rex Nettleford, who always encourages us in the dance arena to "speak in our own voice." I am of the opinion that we must find our niche and present something that is new and interesting to the next generation. We have a unique culture and all we need to do is to draw on others to enrich ours. Our identification with things African has helped us to realise that what we have is special. Over the years the Ensemble has been accustomed to working with African choreographers, therefore last season was not really an exception.
Q: How did you arrive at the season's title?
A: It was in discussion with Mutabaruka and Jackie Cohen that the title was suggested. And, under close examination, I found it appropriate. The dancers, choreographers and I readily warmed to the suggestion because of its significance to our culture. We worked together assiduously on getting the vocabulary and concepts right.
Q: Could you explain what motivates your choreography?
A: My works are mostly based on reality - life. Most times I begin with what is happening in my life at that time. I always begin slowly, build and maintain the momentum. I also involve and encourage isolation movements - shoulders, bottoms, heads - that are generally done to different rhythms.
Q: You have a distinct knack of selecting appealing music for your dance works. How do you go about doing so?
A: I am very particular about the type of music I use. I have a wide collection of music done by various composers. I go into retreat once I begin preparations for my season of dance. I spend a lot of time listening and sometimes things happen. I select music which will allow easy listening by my audiences. There is something natural about my choices; I select music which is unpopular.
Q: Could you explain the methodology used when choreographing a dance?
A: First, I think of what would be suitable for my dancers, because they will be the ones responsible for making the idea works. We work in oneness - it is total democracy. We pool ideas and draw on each other's vocabulary. We always have dialogue on the work to be created and assist them to use their bodies to create ideas.
Q: Your costumes seem to create a stir, because there are those who begin to applaud once the dancers are in sight, before they even start dancing.
A: I work with one of the most talented costume designers, Denise Robinson. Whenever I am choreographing a dance and thinking about costumes, I always see colours. And the fabrics are purchased along those lines. It is teamwork. We look at the work together and do designs to complement the work. Denise ensures that the colours flow and complement the dancers. The finished costumes are always aesthetically pleasing.
Q. How did you begin as a choreographer?
A. It all began while teaching at Stella Maris Preparatory School. I actually grew up with them and acquired my choreographic skills. However, it began in earnest after my studies at York University, North Carolina, and the Jamaica School of Dance. I was fortunate to have had some of the best dance tutors in choreography, including Ivy Baxter, Barbara Requa and Bert Rose. I learnt a lot from them. I can remember my very first work, which was at Christmas time at Stella Maris, when I created 'Yes Lord, Yes'.
Q: How do you function as a mother, choreographer, dancer and student?
A: Everything comes easy for me. I live a well-organised life and my family is quite supportive. My children have all grown up and they fully understand what is happening in my life. It is also through God's grace why I manage. My friends all marvel at my many accomplishments.
Q. Most artistes have mentors or someone who has guided their careers. Do you?
A: Yes. However, I have to give credit to several persons. For my choreographic ability, Bert Rose and Professor Rex Nettleford; excellence in dance, Patsy Ricketts; to work and cope with young people, D. Joyce Campbell; and for costume design, Denise Robinson.
Q: How does your experience inform your choreography?
A: It allows me to draw on my wealth of experiences and create something different to what obtains. It also affords me the opportunity to be creative and always wanting to give back more than what I received to my dancers. Through my experiences I am always searching for more information, while maintaining my Caribbean identity.
Q: Could you name some of your unforgettable dance works?
A: I would say 'Cross Currents' (1994), choreographed for the National Dance Theatre Company, 'Baka Beyond' (1998), for the Stella Maris Dance Ensemble and 'Antithesis' (1993), my first work with the NDTC.
Q: Have you ever choreographed a work and, after viewing the final product, expressed regret?
A: No! But the converse is true. I have created works that my dancers disliked for one reason or another. When I choreographed 'Neighbours' and 'Fragments' they disliked them, because of the demands on their energy level.
Q: How do you respond to people who tell you your works are unforgettable?
A: Well, I am glad, yet humbled. One feels honoured when told your work relates to them in some way. It also assists in telling you whether you are on the right track or not. Once you start choreographing dances you suddenly become an educator. Some people attend the theatre to be educated.
Q: How do you relate to your dancers? Do they have difficulty understanding your concepts?
A: Because of my methodology we work well together. We create together and make things work.
Q: Are you anticipating early retirement? How much longer do you intend to continue choreographing dances?
A: I have no plans for early retirement. I will continue to choreograph dances as long as I have breath in my body.