Three women silhouette the softly lit stage of the Little Carib Theatre in Elizabeth Bergmann’s “Love After Love” with music by Penguin Cafe and the Poetry of Derek Walcott.
Avni-Joy Dookie, Allison Seepaul and Leah Gordon are all students of Different Disciplines, and it shows. Centre stage there is another, older than the three but no less expert in her movement. Her feet are like roots grounded firmly, her arms stretching forth like branches, strong yet gliding gently to a soft breeze. Carol La Chapelle brings on stage the subtle yet powerful nuances of age, and old oak among wild bush.
The figures are a startling contrast; each has it’s own grace which distinguishes it from the others. From the poise of the perfect ballerina to the majestic presence of age, each is a statement onto itself. It is almost ridiculous that they should share the same stage. But then the light brightens, the music begins and the four figures move to centre stage. And the mesh……..
The lights in the Little Carib Theatre are soft once more, but now there is no-one there to give the lusty applause of just a few nights prior. The La Chapelle Dance Company of Trinidad and Tobago’s Season ’96 which ran from June 13 to 16, is over; so too are the two encore performances held on June 22 and 23. The strange thing is, that after weeks of gruelling rehearsals and six nights of hectic curtain calls, the company’s artistic director still seems unwearied and ready for action.
“We had not done a concert in years,” says La Chapelle, lounging at the Little Carib in the season’s quiet aftermath.
Theirs was a hiatus during which Carol La Chapelle had her attention focussed on other things, including working with Derek Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop on choreography for productions like “Joker Of Seville”, “The Odyssey” and the 1995 Casique Award winning play, “Dream On Monkey Mountain”.
“It is a question of choices,” the still talented dancer affirms.
“Theatre dance and concert dance are two different things. We had been doing this stuff here and a little stuff there, but nothing major as a group.”
And although the numbers who witnessed this latest re-emergence were seldom sufficient to fill the historic Woodbrook theatre house, the crowds which were present from Thursday 13 to Sunday 16, of June were avid and appreciative.
“We’ve had a few traumatic moments,” La Chapelle admits of the build up to Season ’96, which suffered the departure of dancers such as Anthony Guerra, Nicole Silvester and Sonja Dumas for places like Canada and New York.
“Dance is one of the most traumatic professions in the world, both physically and emotionally. The life we lead, the life we choose is not an easy one.”
Certainly the road to Season ’96 was not an easy one either, being faced with a young cast of such diverse backgrounds, from ballet exponents such as Dookie and Seepaul to Best Village performers like Christopher Shepard, Derek Casanova and Natalie Joseph. “Look at the motley crew,” La Chapelle exclaims with mixed emotions of delight and despair.
“Indeed they are all masters in their own right, but you cannot have a group as mixed as this and not tread carefully. You have to find pieces that will work with all of us, work which demands a certain standard, but which is also Trinidadian and Caribbean.”
That was the specific challenge of the La Chapelle Season. The company had to find dances which would demand the precision of a ballet, satisfying the director’s obsession with technique, while embracing the spirit of our folk rhythms and movements.
“The folk is the essence, the source, the inspiration, the stamp which makes us unique,” La Chapelle explains with lively passion. For her, as for the company’s other members, it was the root from which the Season ’96 grew, eventually fusing it with more contemporary dance disciplines.
There was an added essence however, which brought unmistakable life to the la Chapelle season performances, More often than not, it was the youth an vitality of some of the cast members which had audiences screaming. At no time was this more obvious when teenager, Dookie was onstage either for a solo such as La Chapelle’s Malaguena or in the Branches pas de deux with Alan Balfour.
“She is a lovely dancer, with lovely expression,” LA Chapelle comments. Almost hesitantly of her youngest company member. “You don’t want to call her principal dancer, because she is so young and you do not want it to go to her head, but that is what she is.” But the youth went even further in making their mark. Alan Balfour added his voice to the season both as a dancer and as a choreographer, contributing such pieces as La Divina Pastora, Branches and 24 Hours. Terry Springer, a Trinidadian Dancer based in Venezuela contributed In Dance.
Their passion added and gave distinction to what became a reflective portrait which explored through music and movement everything from colonial influences to the black religious rebellion and finally, the Caribbean cultural birth.
Even with La Chapelle’s moderate success the dancer’s struggle continues. Dance, as with many of the arts still cannot provide a living, and too often the potential of talent goes unfulfilled because of the inability to devote the time needed to hone it. Clear indication of the still dubious regard held for dance in Trinidad and Tobago, could be seen simply from the venue to which La Chapelle’s Season ’96 was confined and the sometimes lukewarm presence of audiences.
Easily comparable is the recent response the company received last month in Amsterdam at the M.E.P. Arts Festival last month. “It was easy and yet it was not easy,” says La Chapelle.
“After all, it was the first time a Trinidadian representative was invited to a European performing arts festival. Apart form that we were appearing on the closing night, it was packed and there were all those comparisons to face.”
But she continues:
“I swear to you, on that night the audience applauded from beginning to end.”
“They were simply mesmerised by the Caribbean-ness, the Blackness, the colours, the beauty and the youth. They were excitable, more than that, they were crazy. We have already been tentatively invited for the festival’s 10th anniversary celebrations next year.”
Even for the layman, it is not hard to imagine the struggle which the individual faces in the search for self-expression, in a society which gives little merit to the artist. And for the young person, that search is even more difficult.
Each painter, each writer, and indeed each dancer has to delve deep within themselves for the inspiration to endure; their living is always hard and too often lonely. It is a struggle which La Chapelle shares with her young dancers, her children despite their age difference. Onstage, three women converge once again towards the central figure standing in the soft light. Carol La Chapelle utters one last line of a Derek Walcott monologue just before she is dragged off screaming. It is the answer to every person who has ever challenged the dancer’s devotion to his or her vocation.
” ‘ At least we live.’ “