40 years of Sulkari

Entertainment

40 years of Sulkari

The gift from Cuba that keeps giving

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, May 31, 2020

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As part and parcel of its ethos, the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) has always looked to the wider Caribbean in the development of its aesthetic, and the diversification of its repertoire. Founding father, the late Professor Rex Nettleford, as a strong proponent of regionalism, looked to aspects of the region's diverse culture to influence the company's repertoire.

In 1980, he reached out to Jamaica's closest neighbour, Cuba , and as part of a cultural exchange the celebrated work Sulkari, choreographed by the late Eduardo Riviero Walker, was gifted to the company. Forty years later, Walker's work remains part of the active repertoire of the NDTC.

Sulkari was choreographed in 1971 for Walker's Danza Nacional de Cuba, and is still performed by that company. He was inspired by details of carvings, headdresses, masks, and other sculptural elements of the Yoruba people of the African kingdom of Dahomey, which was located within the area of present-day Benin.

The work is a sensual, spiritual and ritual exploration of the exaltation of fertility through the male-female relationship in order for the continuation of human life. The work, which runs for 21 minutes and 27 seconds against a soundtrack of traditional African music, has always inspired, intrigued and amazed audiences.

The original cast at the NDTC upon whom Sulkari was set 40 years ago was Denise Francis Robinson, Arlene Richards, Gabrielle Harban, Oswald “Junior” Blackwood, Gene Carson, Duran Hylton, and Samuel Dailey.

Robinson recalled the level of excitement she felt at being given the opportunity to not only perform the work, but to be guided by the choreographer himself.

“At that time I was young and wanted to do any, and every thing that came my way. Add to that this was an international choreographer. It was an honour for me to sit at the feet of Eduardo, a renowned master of his craft who had Jamaican connections. I had seen Sulkaribefore, performed by the Cubans at The Ward Theatre and I was absolutely struck by the power, majesty and magic of the work. I was drawn in by its simplicity and yet it was complex… I don't think there was a dancer in the NDTC who didn't want to be part of the cast.”

Robinson described it as her good fortune to be among the three females chosen by Walker. She described the process of taking the work from the dance studio to the stage as both an experience and an education.

Unknown to the local dancers, Walker was a strict disciplinarian.

“The rehearsals were long and hard. You came in as if it was a performance. So from day one we were dressed in the costume so you could be present from the get-go. Some days the rehearsal took the form of a lecture, so that we got a full understanding of who and what we were representing. We were never allowed to speak unless we were spoken to. So if he was working on someone, we had to sit and observe. The rehearsals were also conducted in private. So other members of the company could not just pass by to watch…not even Professor Nettleford. He did allow that kind of distraction. So it was a holistic indoctrination and intensive immersion every day.”

“There was a level of seriousness and focus that I had never experienced before. But once you got more into the work, and understood where it was coming from and what it represented, you realised that it was so important in order to share the work with audiences. There is even a specific way to breathe with the puffing of the cheeks, which gives the experience a life force of it own. For me, Sulkari transcended performance. The brilliance of the choreography inhabited me and vice versa,” she shared.

She also recalled dancing the work in New York while she was four months pregnant, an experience which she said gave new meaning to the themes of fertility explored in the work.

The NDTC truly treasures this gift from Cuba and has no plans of removing it from the repertoire any time soon.

Artistic director of the company, Marlon Simms, described Sulkari as a stunning representation of dance drawn from ancestral rituals which is real and authentic and makes that connection with the audience.

“The work goes beyond dancers and touches the audience. It is sensual and therefore appealing to the audience. The vulnerability is very real and the audience connects with the couples on stage and are taken on a journey.”

Simms, who has been part of the Sulkari cast since 2007, also recalled the intensity of rehearsals conducted by Walker who passed away in 2012. The commitment of the choreographer to present a detailed work stays with him whenever he is preparing for a performance of Sulkari.

“I always find myself reflecting on the process… you just don't want to mess up. I remember his seriousness and how his voice just commanded the space and demanded focus and dedication. It is a high level of concentration. Just before going on stage I usually just withdraw and centre myself, get into a mindset of a statue that is able to move and capture the element he had so painstakingly created and shared with us,” said Simms.

Sulkari was last performed by the NDTC in 2017. Over the years a long list of dancers have had these experience including Alaine Grant, Alison Symes, Adrian Fletcher, Milton Sterling, Deroi Rose, Keita-Marie Chamberlain Clarke, Mellissa Llewellyn, Marisa Benain, Allatunje Connell, Kevin Moore, Shakee Dobson, Stefanie Thompson, Tamara Noel, Candice Morris, Gillian Samms, Terry-Ann Dennison, Tovah-Marie Bembridge, Orlando Barnett, Mark Phinn, and Kemar Francis.

For Robinson it is hoped that succeeding generations will recognise the value of Sulkari and the choreographer.

“Especially now that he has passed, they must realise the responsibility to carry this sacred oracle, because that it what is really is, a sacred oracle.”


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