On a Sunday afternoon, 15 dancers and choreographers gather in a Brooklyn dance studio to share their works in progress under the careful eye of Candace Thompson, the founding Executive Director of Dance Caribbean Collective. Together, they are preparing for DCC’s second annual New Traditions Festival, a performance series that celebrates Caribbean diasporic dance traditions in New York City and the immigrant communities – many historically centered in Brooklyn – from which they come.
Thompson, who was born and raised in Trinidad, moved to New York City in 2005 to pursue her dance studies at Adelphi University; she has been performing, choreographing, and teaching dance throughout the city ever since. Producing the New Traditions Festival is a natural outlet for her unending advocacy for Caribbean dance and people in New York. This year’s Festival – which will be held June 11 and 12 at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in Dumbo, Brooklyn – has already greatly surpassed the scope of last year’s inaugural event.
“We wanted to make it more visible,” says Thompson. “The first showcase was literally a “showcase”: it was one night. We wanted to expand it to be able to show more people, more diversity, draw a bigger audience, and highlight some of the more established Caribbean choreographers who have been doing this type of work for a long time.”
With connections to Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada, Jamaica, and Haiti, the 2016 New Traditions artists speak with varied voices. Over two nights, the festival will feature dance works by five local emerging choreographers (including Thompson), as well as a special presentation of Christopher Walker and Kevin A. Ormsby’s Facing Home: Love and Redemption. Through the lens of Bob Marley’s music, Walker and Ormsby search for love and hope in the face of homophobia, both in Walker’s homeland of Jamaica and beyond. “I’m in love with it,” says Thompson of Walker and Ormsby’s piece. “It’s so specific, so much derived from a lot of the things we experience as Caribbean cultures.”
Their fusion of dance genres is another draw. Though their piece is designed as a concert dance work, “Chris is Jamaican, so he pulls a lot from dancehall and its references,” Thompson explains. Indeed, the New Traditions Festival aims to highlight those artists who are working at the crux of several intersecting identities, melding the heritage and history of their families’ Caribbean communities with their experiences in the U.S. to unpack the social politics of the Caribbean-American experience through dance.
For choreographer Maxine Montilus, inspiration comes from her father’s three attempts to leave Haiti, and the spiritual devotion that guided him to the United States. “I’ve been making it a point to ask my parents more about their history lately, just for my knowledge of getting further into understanding my heritage and where I come from,” says Montilus. “It was him telling this story that inspired me to want to create a piece about it, to honor his story of struggle and overcoming that to get to America.”
In Montilus’s solo, entitled Boutilier (after a mountain in Haiti that proved pivotal in her father’s story), reverence and hope shine through moments of hardship. “Ritualistic practices and spirituality influenced these [choreographic] motifs,” explains Montilus. In one movement, repeated several times throughout the piece’s journey-like structure, she lifts her face to the sky, then bends a leg to bow down and gesture to the earth. It’s a reference to her father’s Christianity: “the idea of looking up to honor the creator but also looking down to honor ancestors.”
While Montilus’s choreography uses a personal story to introduce wider themes from the Caribbean-American experience, Thompson’s work starts by analyzing large cultural changes and looks inward from there.
With her trio “‘Neath De Mas,” Thompson addresses “the history of the Carnival tradition, and looking at that in comparison to how the celebration happens now.” Through the invigorating rhythms of soca music and dance, the work broadens to consider the life cycle of regional traditions. Thompson also acknowledges the wisdom that her fellow performers, also of Caribbean descent, bring to her rehearsal process just “by being themselves.” As the three women dance, bonds are formed and broken, freedoms gained and lost; an apt echo of experiences shared throughout generations.
Over the past year, Dance Caribbean Collective has built up an impressive following, a direct indication of New Yorkers’ excitement about Caribbean dances and dancers. As such, Thompson never loses sight of the people she strives to serve. In assembling this year’s line-up, accountability was key. “You want to hold the work accountable to your community,” she resolves. Her idea of a successful show? For the curtain to rise and audiences to see a piece of their lives on stage; to say, “in some small part, ‘yeah, that’s like me.’”
Dance Caribbean Collective’s New Traditions Festival 2016: Dance Your Caribbean! performances will be held Saturday, June 11 at 7:30pm and Sunday, June 12 at 6:00pm (complete program information below) at Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, 29 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Tickets are $25 for General Admission, $18 for Students and Seniors. A two-day pass to both performances is available for $42; a Premium two-day passes (which include reception invitations) are $50. Visit dancecaribbeancollective.com for more information.