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Jackie Guy, MBE - a J'can success story

Published:Friday | August 9, 2013 | 12:00 AM
National Dance Theatre Company members in performance in 1974. From left: Patsy Ricketts, Rex Nettleford, Jackie Guy, and Monica McGowan. - File
Jackie Guy (left) takes a dance group through its paces in the UK. - Contributed

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

"Exactly what do you do?" the Queen asked Jackie Guy.

He told her he was a choreographer, now semi-retired, but still working in schools and doing some mentoring.

"But that is so good," the Queen responded.

Laughing, Guy, who was telling me the story, continued: "And she shook my hand."

This was in November 2012, at Buckingham Palace, London, where Guy had gone to be officially awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire), one of Britain's highest honours.

Also an educator and dancer, Guy has been living in England for the last 27 years and received the award for his outstanding contribution to dance education in the United Kingdom.

Privileged black awardee

Guy was one of 191 awardees that day, only two of whom were black, he said.

The MBE was the second major award he was getting in a year, Guy said.

In October 2011, he received a Lifetime Award from the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora.

He has been dancing all his life, Guy said, as we spoke in mid-July.

"From I was small, I was a great mover," Guy said, explaining that this was partly because his mother and father were "great social dancers", and he and his sister copied them. They often danced together at social events, such as wedding receptions.

When Alma Mock Yen started a dance group in Harbour View, where he lived as a boy, he and his friends would look on from the fence. One day, they were invited to take part.

"And the next thing you know," Guy laughed, "we were inside in tights and leotards, doing plies." The year was 1964, but seeing the musical multi-Oscar-award-winning West Side Story, with its magnificently choreographed dances three years before, had prepared his mind for dance classes.

"When I saw the guys dancing in the street, I thought 'Oh my God, that's me,'" he said.

While Guy was a student at Windward Road School, Louise Bennett Coverley (Miss Lou) visited and entertained the students. Guy put movements to one of her songs, De River Ben Come Down, and when she returned to the school a year later, Guy showed her the dance.

Hugging Guy, with a "Good man, clap yusself!", she congratulated him and used a word which was foreign to him at the time but became important to his career. The word was "choreography", Guy said, marvelling at the fact that years later he would be on the stage of Ward Theatre with Miss Lou in the Little Theatre Movement's (LTM) 1967 pantomime, Anancy and Pandora, and would be the choreographer for another pantomime, Music Boy (1971), also featuring Miss Lou.

Miss Lou dedication

Miss Lou was such an important influence in his life, Guy said, that when she died in 2006, he was moved to choreograph a dance, Only Fi Yu, with Movements Dance Company, as a tribute to her.

As much as he loved dancing, however, Guy gave it up for a while when he started working at RJR as an accountant in 1966.

"I wanted to concentrate on my job," he said. But he couldn't stay from dance and soon started taking classes with choreographer Eddy Thomas who, with Rex Nettleford, founded the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) in 1962.

Nettleford took over the classes when Thomas went away to study and put Guy (and others in the class) in Anancy and Pandora.

Early 1968, Nettleford invited Guy to become a member of the NDTC, for which Guy did a lot of choreography, as he had for Thomas' troupe.

Thomas encouraged Guy to not only dance, but also to teach and choreograph.

Guy said, "Out of dancing, choreographing and teaching, I like teaching best. I'm happiest when I see that my students are happy and doing well."

Before leaving Jamaica, he taught dance at different places, including the Social Development Commission, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, and the School of Dance. He was director of the University Dance Society for nearly 18 years and performed with the NDTC for 15 years, he said.

He left the island for England, for the first time, in 1985 and was encouraged to work in dance there. Because of his work in Jamaica, Guy was hesitant, but when he returned to England, the following year with Movements Dance Company for the group's first major tour, he was again urged to migrate.

"So in 1987, I finally decided to settle in England," Guy said.

He went there not only for the work opportunities, Guy said. He also wanted to renew the relationship with his father, then living in London, that had faltered over the years.

Success in the UK

Two big jobs Guy got in England were choreographing the musical version of Derek Walcott's O Babylon, which was being directed by Yvonne Jones Brewster at Tallawah Theatre, and becoming the artistic director for Kukuma Dance Company in Birmingham.

"I worked with them for seven-and-a-half years and won for them the Best Production and Best Choreography awards in the Black Dance Awards. I also won the Prudential Award for Excellence, Innovation and Accessibility," Guy said.

Those awards, Guy recalled, led to "a lot of big things". They included teaching stints at colleges and universities and his "big moment" in 2006 when he was asked to be choreographer for the musical version of The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell'shistoric Jamaican movie.

The musical "blossomed into an incredible production," Guy said.

It became the first Jamaican musical to play in London's prestigious West End theatre district. It went there in 2008 after it ran from 2006 to 2007 at Stratford Royal East Theatre. It travelled to Toronto and Miami in 2009 and, in 2010, toured England.