Stella Maris Dance Ensemble’s triumphant return
Stella Maris Dance Ensemble’s 30th Season of Dance (SMDE) was a full-circle moment for loyal patrons and newcomers alike.
Aside from watching the SMDE’s inter-generational cast of dancers invest their bodies, energies, and spirits into performing its dynamic repertoire, it was equally satisfying to watch a legacy of art unfold on stage. The once-younger dancers were now the senior members of the ensemble. The fresh vibe from the junior members contributed a tactile excitement to the concert offerings as with wide-eyed enthusiasm, they held their own among the senior members.
The recent concert, which was well organised and well danced, announced the SMDE’s triumphant return to the Little Theatre in its 30th Sseason.
The retrospective programme featured an amalgamation of excerpts from the SMDE’s classic works over the decades and showcased a diversity of the ensemble’s traditions, all presented with colour, rhythm, and what theorist Robert Farris Thompson would refer to as a “vital aliveness”.
The audience travelled on a journey through an anthology of stories narrated by the liturgical styles of Dr MoniKa Lawrence’s Where Is Maria?; local dance hall stylings of Orville Hall’s Scandal Bag; Umfundalai (contemporary Pan-African styles) from the late Dr Kariamu Welsh and Dr. C. Kemal Nance’s works Sankofa Jah and Red; neo-traditional West African dance styles from H. Patton; as well as Except God and classical jazz vocabularies of the late Rex Nettleford’s Limbo.
The first half of the concert also included Patsy Ricketts’ Kingston 666 performed to the music stylings of Jamaica’s own Buju Banton, and Patchwork, the classic work choreographed by Tony Wilson. Of course, no SMDE retrospective performance would be complete without an excerpt from Dr Lawrence’s seminal work, Liza, which featured a combined cast of dancers from the SMDE and the Nance Dance Collective. This performance was a delightful reminder that the SMDE is back, stronger than ever.
The full-circle moment came in the second half of the concert when the SMDE dancers, students from University College of the Cayman Islands, and performers from the Nance Dance Collective paid tribute to the late Ivy Baxter, Barry Moncliffe, and Kariamu Welsh in a dance processional accompanied by the Jamaica Youth Chorale. Adorned in all-white attire, the group dramatically and energetically waved white cloths and swayed non-stop as Dr Maria Smith, Denise Francis Robinson, and Dr C. Kemal Nance shared with the audience biographical information about each of the honourees. It was a feast for the eyes and heart.
Immediately following, American artist Danzel Thompson-Stout mesmerised patrons with a solo in which he seemed to defy gravity and other laws of nature. The evening ended with an artistic collaboration by choreographers Dr MoniKa Lawrence, Renee McDonald, and Dr C. Kemal Nance in the The Rising, a contemporary treatment of the age-old tale of the phoenix bird rising from the ashes. In three episodes, the full company of junior and senior dancers leapt through the air, lifted each other with care and reverence, all while filling the theatre with the drama of their elaborate costuming. The audience bore witness to a dancer changing colour while turning during the dance.
Dr Lawrence’s opening remarks paid tribute and gratitude to the diverse group of individuals who have contributed to the success of the Stella Maris Dance Ensemble, highlighting their roles and the various capacities in which they have been involved. Sister Mary Joseph, co-founder of the SMDE and patron of the 2023 Season, together with Winston HooFatt, chairman of the SMDE, were recognised.
Dr Lawrence also thanked members of her family for their support, including husband Jimmy and daughters Souad and Imani Natalie, who have played the roles of photographer, videographer, graphic designer, and front-of-house staff. She also expressed appreciation to costume designer Denise Francis Robinson; stage manager Joan Belfon; and seamstress Audry Mantock. She also acknowledged the continued support of patrons Wayne Chen and Burchell Whiteman.