Sunday, 6 February 2011

REMEMBERING PROFESSOR REX NETTLEFORD: What I learned from one of the Caribbean’s greatest-ever artistic sons

For the greater part of its nearly 50-year existence, the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) was led by one man: the endlessly marvellous Professor Ralston ‘Rex’ Nettleford. So encompassing and matchless was Mr. Nettleford’s contribution to dance theatre in Jamaica, and by extension the performing arts, and so encyclopaedic his artistic and academic knowledge, that by the time he died in February of last year, his name had not only become synonymous with the celebrated dance company; he was, in essence, the embodiment and ambassador of excellence in the arts.

Though his contribution, as I observed, tempered in the years closest to his passing, his dedication to lavish, dazzling choreography grew, and if you want rich evidence you have to look no further than the sterling work he did with “Katrina,” a masterpiece hastening into the tradition of the timeless master works “Kumina” and “Gerrebenta.”

Still, it was in different, more special sense that Mr. Nettleford impacted my life: stern advice in a 2006 telephone call that initially sought his commentary on a particular subject I was researching while a fledgling reporter at the Observer. As it turned out, Mr. Nettleford, a self-described practical and no-nonsense person was a huge admirer of my theatre and dance writings in the Observer, and he made this clear in his compliments. I, on the other hand, acting like a shy, bumbling idiot conversing with the master orator himself, had a hard time wrapping my head around the praise coming from the other end of the line. The Rex Nettleford was an admirer of my work. Of course, poor little old me could not find words.

As if immediately sensing my speechlessness/naivete, mixed with awe and jittery nerves, Mr. Nettleford firmly said, “Own it. You earned it.” And, with those two seemingly simple sentences, the great man did more to shore up confidence than I had ever done for myself in over two decades. That moment made my day, my week, my year. And in much the same way I value the enormous contribution Wayne Brown, another late great son of the region, made to my life as an artist, that rare moment in Professor Nettleford’s ‘presence’ was a priceless gift, one that changes you.

I never got to properly express my sincere thanks to him for opening my eyes, but I believe he knew how deeply he touched me with the simplest of words. He would be thrilled to see the growth my little blog has achieved since its advent in 2009. It is something he would have applauded; he was a terrific clapper. Professor Nettleford was a man famously and deeply passionate about issues and outfits that inflame artistic emotion without being taken as simply cool. He would tell me to staunchly defend its true purpose. It’s role. And that signalled, in large part, the measure of the man, what I came to appreciate most.

Last Thursday, February 3, Professor Nettleford would have quietly celebrated his 78th birthday. That same day, I turned 26. And, child, I owned it.

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