Remembering Rex Nettleford
The Latin definition of Rex is King, which would explain why Ralston Milton ‘Rex’ Nettleford was so majestic. Playing a significant role in helping to shape Jamaican culture, the visionary, Rhodes Scholar, professor, vice chancellor, social critic...
The Latin definition of Rex is King, which would explain why Ralston Milton ‘Rex’ Nettleford was so majestic.
Playing a significant role in helping to shape Jamaican culture, the visionary, Rhodes Scholar, professor, vice chancellor, social critic, dancer, choreographer, co-founder, and artistic director of the National Dance and Theatre Company (NDTC) seemed to be before his time, pushing much-needed boundaries, mindsets, and the arts forward.
Born in the parish of Trelawny, on February 3, Nettleford would have been 90. And while he passed a day before his 77th birthday some 13 years ago, his immense legacy lives on and he is still fondly remembered.
As a prelude to The Rex Nettleford Foundation’s ‘Remembering Rex’, slated for Wednesday, February 8 at The Little Theatre, The Sunday Gleaner set out to speak to some who knew him well.
When asked what comes to mind when thinking of Nettleford, Marjorie Whylie, a notable pianist, percussionist, and educator who was the musical director of NDTC for 45 years says, “There is so much. He was the quintessential Jamaican. A man whose knowledge was so varied and vast, and he was always concerned about young people progressing.”
If he saw something in you, he would hone it.
Whylie says she thinks of him often and has a picture of him in her music room where she teaches. “He pushed me and pulled me to compose,” she evokes.
Considering him “a special human being”, singer Carole Reid, who joined the NDTC in 1972, is clear that “he cared about people, and if you were one of his people you were blessed”.
At 16, as the youngest member to join NDTC in its history, Alicia Glasgow says, “I immediately felt Prof’s welcome, support and the responsibility that came along with the privilege of being an NDTC member. Over the years, Prof took a special interest in me as the NDTC ‘baby’, nurtured me personally and artistically, while challenging me to be the best version of myself that I could be.”
Both Kerry-Ann Henry (NDTC dancer) and Reid have memories of his early-morning calls and how he would say their names and make them sound like music.
“I believe that he helped to shape every single person that came into contact with him because we felt the importance of being ambassadors of the diaspora and the importance of what we were doing so that others could see, be proud of, and follow,” surmised Henry.
Co-founding NDTC in 1962, Nettleford was both artistic and academic. Whylie explains of Nettleford, while at Cornwall College, “He would collect materials and started to observe things.” Once he came to Kingston to study at the then University College of The West Indies, his love for the arts only grew fonder, and his time in Britain as a Rhodes Scholar exposed him even more. But it was on the return to Jamaica as head of the UWI extramural department that “he had time and he had space to think about the dance seriously”.
“He was the type of person that drew out the best in you every time,” says Sandra Minott-Phillips, attorney-at-law, and former NDTC dancer. “Focus on the task at hand,” he would always say, to ensure all were giving the audience the best performance possible.
As an astute gentleman who lead by example, Reid, Minott-Phillips, and Melanie Graham concur that Nettleford would ask no more of anyone than he would ask of himself. “He was a fantastic leader,” says Graham. “We often marvelled at how he was able to do so many things,” says Minott-Phillips, who quickly recollects, “The more you have to do is the more you get done,” was one of his mantras. “He kept a rigorous schedule while motivating people and leading by example. Often getting off planes and coming straight to rehearsal,” says Reid.
With rich melanin skin, he rightfully considered himself royalty and carried himself as such. With excellent posture and diction, his fashion sense was impeccable, featuring African cuts and prints before they became popular. “His fashion sense came out of his African awareness,” says Whylie. Shunning suits and ties but still maintaining appropriate, exquisitely tailored, and stylish clothing for every occasion, Elizabeth Buchanan-Hind, executive director of the Rex Nettleford Foundation who was mentored by the great, recalls him telling her, “Elizabeth, there is no reason for me to tie a tie around my neck.”
His love and acceptance of his culture can be seen in his beautifully choreographed pieces for NDTC, such as Kumina and The Crossing.
An excellent orator, Nettleford spoke all over the world and had a way with words. Capturing imaginations, while provoking thought, he also had a great sense of humour and was to the point. Who can forget his famous quip, “A buttu in a Benz is still a buttu.”
Buchanan-Hind reminisces, “He was brilliant and humble. He didn’t need the accolades or the attention or to be treated with difference.”
Nettleford was once asked what it meant to get the Order of Merit (OM) and he responded, “I am an ordinary man.” Yet, wherever he went people were captivated by his presence.
From the highest to the lowest, he dealt with people from all levels of society. He was a sounding board for many heads of government in Jamaica and around the Caribbean, who would have him on speed dial to get his opinion on varied issues, and treat the man on the street corner with the same level of respect he deserved.
Nettleford was very focused on getting young people to understand that education was a necessary part of life. “There are many that he paid the school fees for and that he quietly helped financially,” says Whylie.
As a lecturer, Fae Ellington found that he “brought a level of knowledge and information sharing that came across as if he was just imbued by the subject”. He loved what he did and everyone could tell.
Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah, director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, is the inaugural Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies (2005), and considers him to be “an awesome, dignified, determined individual who was a master of a man”, who must be recognised for the efforts that he made in the cultural studies initiative.
It is with these sentiments that the Rex Nettleford Foundation was created, says Buchanan-Hind, “to keep Nettleford’s life and legacy going on in perpetuity so that people understand who he was. What his contribution was to Jamaica, the Caribbean, and globally. We try to identify young people who exhibit the promise of Professor Nettleford and support them.”
Marlon Simms, current artistic director of NDTC, met Professor Nettleford as a student at UWI. “He was an excellent guide and would always carve out time in his busy schedule for me. It was encouraging that he would find the time when it seemed that he was always very busy. He was the epitome of excellence, and his nurturing disposition helped me in completing the course successfully. I remember the long conversations we had sitting across from him behind a mountain of books and papers that were on his desk.”
As to why it is important to remember Professor Nettleford, Simms says, “His legacy represents a philosophy that is deeply rooted in the history and culture of Jamaica, which have been shaped through suffering, severance, and challenges of self-determination. His legacy is a reminder to all of us that we are a people of excellence and that knowing, respecting, and valuing our culture are important factors in becoming architects of our future and destiny.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, at the end of every NDTC performance Nettleford would end with, “And remember, you are only as good as your last work.” A maxim everyone should live by. We honour and remember you, Mr Nettleford.