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On their feet: Jamaican dance group honors its founder

Side by side: The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica will premieres three new dances at the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts on March 18, a celebration of the company’s 55th anniversary.
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They are playing tribute.

The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica will celebrate its 55th birthday with a pair of shows this weekend at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. The performances on March 18 and 19 will showcase the group’s history as one of the leading cultural institutions in the Caribbean, and its role in fusing traditional folklore with current events, said one of the show’s choreographers.

“We are essentially celebrating our Caribbean-ness, and how that’s retained in the body with movement is an exciting expression of who we are,” said Walker. “It’s political as well as comedic, as well as contemporary. It’s almost like we’re having fun at same time that we deal with serious issues — that’s what dance is.”

For the show, Walker choreographed a piece titled “Mountain Climbing,” as a tribute to the company’s founder, Rex Nettleford, incorporating many dance moves that Nettleford originated. Performed by a solo female performer, the piece is about women who do whatever is necessary, just as the founder of the company did.

“After Professor Nettleford’s passing I processed a lot of that with my family. In creating this tribute to him I’m processing my own response, and I wanted to bring that forward with women climbing mountain to advance the family, advancing the culture, and doing what it takes to get it done,” said Walker.

Other debuts at the show include “Into the Blue,” led by the company’s rising young star Renee McDonald, and “Hommage a’Dambala” from choreographer Kevin Moore, which blends Jamaican and Haitian elements, said Walker.

“ ‘Homage a’Dambala’ pulls the rhythmic percussion instrument from Haitian music and Yanvalou — a traditional Haitian dance,” he said. “It’s full of live music and Kevin is exploring that cross-section, and I know that New York will love that work.”

The show will also include the historic dance “Gerrehbenta,” created by Nettleford in the early ’80s. The name is a portmanteau of “gerreh,” a celebratory dance performed after funerals, and “benta,” a stringed instrument made form bamboo. People love to see the dance in action, said Walker.

“It’s certainly a favorite and the children love it too,” he said. “The costumes are exciting, the movements are exciting, and the singing takes you on journey. People just want to get up and dance and it’s an exciting thing to see.”

The company is based in Jamaica, but all aspects of Caribbean and black culture are included in the show, said Walker, with dances inspired by folk traditions from Jamaica, Haiti, and Brazil.

“We like to think of the company as African Diasporic — not only do we create work elevating the vocabulary of other countries, but we have choreography from different countries and regions in our work,” he said. “This entire program is diverse and exciting.”

National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts [2900 Ave. H at Nostrand Avenue in Midwood, (718) 951–4500, www.brooklyncenter.org]. March 18 at 7 pm, $40–$75. March 19 at 3 pm, $36–$45.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimon@cnglocal.com.

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