Dancer of distinction

Arts & Culture

Dancer of distinction

Clive Thompson elated at national honour

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

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DANCER and choreographer Clive Thompson has a credo, “What you think, you manifest”. And it is that mantra which has kept him on the cutting edge in the world of dance for more than 60 years, bringingt him numerous accolades, including the Order of Distinction in the rank of officer which was announced last Thursday.

“It was very unexpected. I've been doing this so long that I don't really expect these things, but now that it has come I must say I am really excited. Now that I am able to keep calm I can stay how thankful I am to those who have seen it fit to honour me in this way…I am truly grateful,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

His journey, which has taken him from the stage of the Carib Theatre in Kingston, to performing with and choreographing for the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — two of the most renowned companies in the world — is testament to his reliance on his personal mantra.

Thompson recalled that his love for performance started at a very early age. He shared that as a child growing up whenever he attended a birthday party a common practice was to ask the children to perform. He and his sister Norma developed a song and dance act that they would perform at such events until one parent, who was the manager of the then-popular Glass Bucket Club, asked his parents to have them perform at the establishment.

“One thing led to another and before you knew it we were part of the Children's Corner Club at the Carib Theatre, which would perform on stage before the start of the movies. We then went on to the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour at the Carib and the annual Christmas morning variety show which featured Miss Lou , Maas Ran and Eric Coverley.”

Thompson would then cement his passion for dance through formal classes with ballet teacher Madam Soohih and local dance pioneer Ivy Baxter. Greater exposure later came when American dancer Katherine Dunham and her troupe were in Jamaica and a young Thompson got to witness the performance.

“I remember seeing some people going into the Carib and I went in behind them and was absolutely blown away by Katherine Dunham's Rites de passage. It was all about the life cycle and I was just so taken about how stories could be told using movement. It was spectacular.”

He was by then working as a teller at the Government Savings Bank and when he had amassed enough vacation leave, Thompson bought a ticket and headed to New York. Before leaving Jamaica, one afternoon he had gone to the United States Embassy and watched the film A Dancer's World,which told the story of dancer Martha Graham. So once he arrived in the Big Apple one of his first stops was Graham's school of dance in Manhattan where he signed up for classes. That was 1960.

“Within weeks of starting the classes I was summoned to Martha Graham's office where she informed me that based on my performance she was offering me a scholarship. I went to my uncle's house in Brooklyn for my passport and was sent to get my visa changed to a student visa. Things moved quickly and within six months I was in rehearsal with her company as the lead in a work called One More Gaudy Night. The New York Times in their review hated the piece, but noted that the best thing was the introduction of Jamaican Clive Thompson,” he recalled.

One More Gaudy Night also featured Jamaican dancer Eddy Thomas who, along with Rex Nettleford, would go on to establish the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) in 1962.

Thompson's star would rise even higher when one evening after a performance he was introduced to Alvin Ailey.

“I really didn't know who he was. He just looked like a big, burly truck driver to me. He said he liked my performance and that he had a studio nearby and I should stop by one day. Some time later I received a message that he wanted to see me and when I went it wasn't an audition or a meeting – he wanted me to join his company right there and then for a state department tour which was set to start in three days. I remember calling my girlfriend at the time, who later became my wife, and telling her to pack as I was leaving in days. I learned Ailey's legendary work Revelations in the aisle of the plane and went all across the United States and Africa on this tour.”

He has packaged all these experiences and brings them to what he does as a choreographer. Since returning home he has set works on the NDTC including Malungu, which tells the tragic tale of famed Jamaican ska pioneer and trombonist Don Drummond; Vision, a touching duet; and Ode, which speaks to the love songs of reggae king Bob Marley.

“Dance is good, dance is vital, dance is life. So, I still make notes on works I want to do, research music, so that whenever I am called I am ready…I have to keep the mind active,” said Thompson.


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