The Wardrobe Mistress is one of the most central roles in any dance or theatre company, Barry Moncrieffe, artistic director of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), asserts, adding, "She is a pillar on which the success of a company stands."
As the NDTC family mourns the loss of its long-standing Wardrobe Mistress, Barbara Kaufman, its past and current members offer praise and highest respect for her unwavering and dedicated service of over 48 years.
Miss Kaufman died at the Kingston Public Hospital on Friday, September 20, after a brief illness. She was 79.
Affectionately called 'Babs', Barbara was an "incredible woman who was critical to the early success and longevity of our 51-year-old company. Her role in the company was unique, but very difficult, and yet, she performed it with utmost pride, protection and with a higher sense of purpose," Moncrieffe declared.
Kaufman joined the NDTC in the mid-1960s as assistant to founding member, Shirley Campbell.
Shortly after, she assumed and maintained the role of Wardrobe Mistress until her death.
A 'silent partner' not seen on stage, Kaufman was charged with safeguarding the tangible elements and artefacts of the NDTC's rich history: costumes, props and décor, amounting to thousands of pieces used in the company's repertoire.
As a former dancer with the Eddy Thomas Dance Workshop, performing in the 1962 production, Roots and Rhythms, she had an intimate understanding of, and passion for, the centrality of, wardrobe to the success of theatrical performances.
Kaufman not only served as Wardrobe Mistress for the NDTC, but also performed a similar function for the Little Theatre Movement's annual pantomime.
She developed her craft into a fine art, and was renowned for her innovative, systematic and meticulous approach to the role, for which she volunteered. Kaufman executed her responsibilities with clear, efficient and effective structures; a skill set, company members say, is attributable to her professional experience in the civil service.
The Wardrobe Mistress extraordinaire catalogued, organised, stored, preserved and protected the extensive NDTC wardrobe with supreme care and efficiency; many of the costumes used as far back as the 1960s remain in storage. Her famous notebooks provided records to support her in-depth and intimate knowledge of all the costumes for the hundreds of works in the repertoire.
In his 1983 book, Dance Jamaica, NDTC co-founder and late artistic director, Professor the Honourable Rex Nettleford, affirmed that Kaufman "built a wardrobe management system unmatched in current Jamaican theatre operations," adding that, "she has had to make difficult and ingenious decisions to find substitutes in critical moments or to make do when serious financial limitations were placed on ambitious design plans".
In recognition of her work in theatre arts, Kaufman was awarded the prestigious Centenary Medal by the Institute of Jamaica.
"Barbara never missed a detail of costume. You could ask her for the pin attached to the pants you wore for a dance 10 years prior and she could tell you where it was, or what happened to it," founding member and choreographer Bert Rose reminisced.
Rose's sentiments were echoed by retired NDTC musical director Marjorie Whylie, who recalls that when the NDTC embarked on a long, multi-city tour in Germany, the members of staff at one particular theatre were amazed at how quickly the petite Kaufman was able to assemble and pack the costumes following the show.
Kaufman's work was so integral to the work of the NDTC that she participated in a record number of international tours since the 1960s.
NDTC founding member Barbara Requa has fond memories of Kaufman and describes her as a warm personality.
"There is no way to explain the mind-blowing amount of work she did behind the scenes to ensure that generations of dancers, singers and musicians looked their best."
Jacqui Smith, former principal dancer, had a special relationship inside and outside of the NDTC space.
"Auntie Babs gave 150 million per cent to whatever role she was committed. In her wardrobe life, she managed with pride, loyalty and dedication. She safeguarded those costumes with her life. In her personal life, she was godmother to both of my children and was extremely supportive of us all. She wouldn't hesitate to be honest and tell you how it is. That is how she lived."
Current dancer Keita-Marie Chamberlain has been understudying and assisting Kaufman since 2010.
"I did not even realise that Auntie Babs was almost 80 years old. She was so full of energy, full of life, extremely independent and always on the go," she said.
Chamberlain shared stories of Kaufman's proactivity.
"Her backstage room in the theatre was adjacent to the wings so she could quickly react to whatever mishap happened on stage. I have seen Auntie Babs quickly sew, tape and pin performers into ripped costumes on the spot to ensure that one would not miss their next entrance."
Dance Captain Marlon Simms reiterated that the nurturing mother figure, in her own indomitable style, bonded with the young people and was often moved by witnessing their growth and artistic development.
"Auntie Babs did not have biological children. We were her children; and, therefore, the loss is very hard for the NDTC and LTM families. She will be deeply missed, but never forgotten."
The NDTC extends heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of Barbara Kaufman. A service in celebration of her life will be held at the Holy Cross Church in Kingston on October 5, with tributes at 10:30 a.m. preceding the service at 11:30 a.m.
The company of dancers, singers, musicians and creative technicians will pay tribute to her with several excerpts from the active repertoire.
THE MINISTER AND THE DANCERS: The Hon. Robert Lightbourne, Minister of Trade and Industry (at rear), with some of his guests at the party he gave for the National Dance Theatre Company at Casa Monte Hotel, Stony Hill. Thursday evening.