Interview: Jackie Guy Q&A

Friday 11 June 2010

Jackie Guy. Photo: Peter Jacobs Jackie Guy is the choreographer for the hit Jamaican musical The Harder They Come which started life at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2006, had a long West End run, a seaon at the Barbican and is now back in London at the New Wimbledon Theatre for a short run next week (15 – 19 June).

Steeped in the knowledge of traditional and contemporary Afro-Caribbean dance forms, these days Jackie’s working life is taken up with teaching and writing, but The Harder They Come is still close to his heart…

!! The Harder They Come is back in London, after a UK tour. Why do you think it has such staying power?
The Harder They Come continues to intrigue having become the first Jamaican musical to play in the West End and breaking box office records at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The production’s longevity is largely due to the power and relevance of its subject matter; expression of exploitation, modern morality, redemption and power of the human spirit. It is also due to the universal appeal of reggae music with its various aspects of social, political, cultural and spiritual messages that affect peoples life in a very profound way. THTC has an organic, unique ability to ignite audiences from all walks of life. Issues of social injustice, oppression and marginalisation are played out on stage as timeless and universal truth.

Tell us about your choreography for the show – is it basically reggae, or do you draw on a wider range of dance styles? **My approach to the choreography is rooted in the sensibilities of both Jamaican traditional and popular dance styles.
The production tells a story about a young fallen hero through the prism of a Ni-Night ritual where Jamaicans commemorate and celebrate the lives of the recent departed. It was important to be authentic in the movement vocabulary/vernacular and to avoid just simply regurgitating dance steps. The uniqueness of this production represents ancestral wisdom as well as modernity and therefore I drew upon and utilized many aspects of the culture, namely: the Masumba of the 18th century Maroons, the wisdom, logic of Dinky Mini celebration, redemptive power of the Rastafarian Nyah Bingi and the popular street and dancehall movement signatures of the 1970s. I embodied the essence of Jamaican and Caribbean dance styles of undulations and pulsations while articulating and responding to the essence and synergy of reggae Music ‘Drum and Bass’ poly-rhythms.
So yes, I drew on a wide range of dance styles with a touch of modern/contemporary dance technique while remaining truthful to the styles of the 70s in which the plays draws its source of energy from the iconic movie.

How did you first get in to dance? **I was a natural dancer with loads of street energy and being a good story-teller and actor, after seeing the musical West Side Story, I eventually enrolled in a dance group taught by the highly creative Alma Mockyen.

And what’s you main focus in dance now?
Mentoring students pursuing BA, MA and PhD programmes in dance and cultural studies.

In Jamaica you danced with the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) for 15 years. Was it a contemporary dance company? What was in the repertory? **A unique modern and contemporary dance company who gets its source of energy, inspiration and logic from Jamaican and Caribbean heritage and culture and the wisdom of the ancestors to experiment and developed a unique style that has lasted for 48 years to date.

You were also artistic director and chief choreographer for the University of the West Indies Dance Society for 17 years. That sounds like a historical dance society. Is that one of your main interests? **Yes indeed the University of the West Indies Dance Society remains my greatest interest as it provided me the opportunity to experiment, research and develop as a choreographer and as a person. Dance history is important, especially to people like us who were confiscated, transported to the Caribbean out of Africa the Motherland.
In order to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, dance became the kernel and a tool of survival as it allowed us psychic energy and intelligence to articulate who we were, who we are and who we can become. Dancing and dance history to Jamaicans is like track and field, we survive and turn out world beaters… oops!

Tell us about your own ‘JaGuy Technique’… **JaGuy technique was developed from my own experience as an artist and person.
The movement structure was developed from my study of anatomy and physiology as I was sick and tired of seeing talent dancers getting frustrated and giving up something they like to do, because they were made to feel guilty that they did not have the right body type for dance by some teachers who were schooled in European classical Ballet. For example, they did not have small heads, long necks, straight spines – and their bulging gluteus maximus was spoiling the lines. Against that background I spent quality time doing observational skills of body type and structured a dance technique that allows any type of body to resonate and tap-into to their inner self and spirit. The technique has a strong emphasis on undulations and pulsation, grounded and shape flow moulded movements and rhythmic sensitivity, but most of all having self confidence as a human being. In addition I have done research on most of the traditional dance and drum language of Jamaica and the Caribbean. I give thanks and have proof that JaGuy technique style, which I have spent years developing, has become successful and accessible to people of all cultures.

Would you say dance is a more integral part of Caribbean culture than in the UK?
Yes, throughout the Caribbean especially in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, dance is a way of life for the people.
In Jamaica we have had a national programme for the last 50 years that allows the population to engage in social dances as well as at competitive level where thousands of children, adults and dance groups compete vigorously for prizes, certificates and trophies. Dance is a way of survival, like track and field and much more a cultural manifestation than in the UK

What kind of work did you get involved in when you first came to the UK? **When I came to reside in England in the mid 1980s my professional career was as Artistic Director for an Afro Caribbean dance company in Birmingham called Kokuma.

Who has influenced you in dance? **My first inspiration was seeing Beryl McBurnie’s dance group from Trinidad and Tobago performing in Jamaica. I was also influenced by the work of Jamaica’s first pioneer of modern dance the late Ivy Baxter. Other people who have influenced me were my first dance teacher and mentor Alma Mockyen.

And who do you admire? **As I developed as an artist with an international perspective I admired such great artists like Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Margot Fonteyn and the genius of the great George Balanchine.

*What are you working on at the moment? * **Trying to complete the two books that I am writing!

And for the future? **I really don’t have many future plans. I am a Christian and I am led by the holy spirit who provides, but I would love to do a large scale production using dance theatre and opera, working with people like Sheron Wray, Darren Panton, Brenda Edwards, Paradigmzs, Annemarie Reid, Maureen Hibbert, Shelley Ann Maxwell, David Blake, Francis Angol, Angela Wynter and Ethnomusicologist Geraldine Connor.

'The Harder They Come' New Wimbledon Theatre, 15-19 June Working on The Harder They Come has allowed me to work and collaborate with some talented people and I hope that the production will especially help young people to never give up hoping for reaching the horizon. Believe in yourself and your God given talent, so as the choreographer I feel blessed.

You can get it if you really want!

The Harder They Come, New Wimbledon Theatre, 15 – 19 June 2010 **”More details/online booking“:

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