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Clive Thompson: a spiritual dancer
published: Sunday | March 30, 2003


Michael Reckord, Contributor

Bless the womb that bore me and the seed that was so planted...

THAT WAS how the interview began, with Clive Thompson giving a blessing and thanks to his parents. "They both died in my arms," he added. "Beautiful, beautiful moments."

Thompson, arguably Jamaica's most famous dancer, habitually gives thanks. He has much to be thankful for.

For years, he was the lead dancer of two leading modern dance companies, Martha Graham's and Alvin Ailey's. Just some of the other companies with which he has danced are those of Katherine Dunham, Geoffrey Holder and Pearl Primus. He danced for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. He has appeared on the cover of Dancemagazine and on Broadway.

He has not been without honour in his own country. He was awarded the Gold Musgrave Medal and the Medal of Honour. In 1975, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Jamaica, he received the Keys to the City. He is probably the only person to have the entire front page of The Sunday Gleaner taken up with six of his photographs. This was on November 10, 1957.

How did it all begin?

"I was born in Kingston and grew up here. We young kids would go to each other's parties. All of us performed ­ danced, sang did skits," he said.

The performers included Thompson and his sister Norma. At one of the birthday parties, the father of one of the children, a nightclub manger (The Glass Bucket, as Thompson remembers) asked if he could take the two to his club to perform for the patrons.

"My parents vetoed that," Thompson laughs. "Then he asked if we could go to the Children's Corner Club, a morning concert at the Carib Theatre put on before the serials (films whose episodes were shown weekly)."

Thompson's parents agreed to this and the children started regular performances. Impresario Eric Coverley saw them and invited us to perform their improvised dances at a 'Christmas Morning' concert at Coke Church.

"Louise Bennett was there," said Thompson. "From that time we met her and became very close."

Then it was on to Vere John's 'Opportunity Hour', of which the duo won several, and later to performances at Myrtle Bank Hotel.

When did formal dance training begin?

Thompson told how, dazzled by a concert featuring the Katherine Dunham Company, he was asked by Ivy Baxter to visit her Cross Roads studio. Thompson and two other 16-year-old friends went, played the drums and then returned "mainly to look at the girls in their leotards", confesses Thompson.

Eventually, Thompson's friends disappeared but he became 'Very involved' with Baxter. Soon he started training at the Mme Soohih School of Dance. and 'Some place in there' he started dancing in Pantomimes.

A Martha Graham film on dance captivated him and as soon as he got leave from the bank at which he worked he flew to New York and headed straight for the Graham School.

Thompson states: "When I got there, Miss Graham was away on vacation. I bought my little book, 10 tickets (entitling him to join classes), and went into the Beginner's Class. I was in the class and a short lady came in and went to the back and started talking to Boris, the Russian accompanist.

"Then she got up came to me and said 'I am Martha Graham. I'd like to speak with you.' I was frightened and jumped up. I was even more frightened when I towered over her, she was so petite," he said.

Graham put Thompson on a scholarship programme, which entailed four or five classes a day Monday through Saturday - two classes in Graham technique, a coaching class, a ballet class.

"I was always tired. I used to walk with a New York Times under my arm, so that when I got tired I'd sit on the sidewalk and sleep," said Thompson. "Later, I discovered a little theatre around the corner from the school. I'd go there in the break between classes and sleep."

During the year or so that this continued, Thompson says he never saw one movie ­ he just slept. It took Thompson just six months to go from the beginners to the advanced class.

Because he wanted to be in the company's season of dance, he took to hanging around rehearsals. One day, encouraged by Martha Graham, he choreographed a solo for himself in the season's Antony and Cleopatra.

Paul Taylor, then a teacher at the school, warned Thompson that other dancers would try to take the part from him. Some tried, Thompson states, but did not succeed.

"Of the dance, Clive Barnes, New York Times critic, said in his review that though he didn't like the work as a whole, he did enjoy the debut of the young Jamaican dancer, Clive Thompson," the dancer said.

Everything he learnt with Martha Graham, Thompson said, he taught to others. This brought him some much needed funds.

During his 10 years with the company, Thompson danced in numerous major dances, always receiving excellent reviews.

A meeting with Alvin Ailey resulted in an invitation to Thompson to train and dance with the company. On one occasion, when the company was invited to South Africa and one dancer developed a detached retina, Thompson had two days to learn the entire repertoire for the show.

"I was learning ballets in the plane, in the aisles of the planes - lifts and jumps and twirls," Thompson laughs at the memory. "It was incredible."

When many in the troupe developed diarrhoea and started fainting, Thompson danced every segment of the famous Ailey dance, Revelations. "I had on three sets of costumes," he said.

Dancing with the Ailey company meant a lot of touring and when Thompson and his wife, Liz, whom he met while she was training with Martha Graham, had their two sons, Thompson found he was not spending the time he wanted to with the family.

So he left the Ailey company and started a school, and later his company, on Staten Island. Even before the school opened, there were 500 students enrolled.

The Clive Thompson Dance Company was eclectic, getting free dances from every major dance choreographer. "Others had to pay US$10,000 to US$20,000 for a dance," Thompson said.

During this time, Thompson would often return to Jamaica. Initially, it was for rest but soon he started working with the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), dancing and choreographing for them.

Thompson has just completed a new dance, Of Sympathy and Love, loosely based on the short Bible verses 'Jesus wept' and 'Lazarus, come forth.' He expects the work to debut the NDTC's annual Easter morning concert.

Other interests of the multi-talented Thompson are singing, gardening and landscaping. He is also a massage therapist and while in New York he studied Swedish Massage.

"All that I do is spiritual. For me the more talent I express is the more I express God," he says, referring to his spiritual side. He is deeply involved with his church, the Temple of Light Church of Religious Science.

"Where am I in my life now?" asks Thompson. "I'm about peace and harmony and good. Where I am is a place of growth. I know who I am, I know what I am. I am a spiritual being having a human existence."

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