How Many Words Do You Need To Know Forum.Language-Learners Talking to One of Jamaica’s Most Exciting Dancer-Choreographers – Neila Ebanks

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Talking to One of Jamaica’s Most Exciting Dancer-Choreographers – Neila Ebanks

YE: Why are you an artist/dancer and when did you first become one?

Neila: I think I was born one. My dance story started when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My mom sent me to dance classes to rehabilitate my extreme pigeon-toes and I’ve been dancing ever since. It is as natural a language to me as breath.

My art chose me. He was not the instigator of the relationship. But every day I make the choice to affirm my soul through my connection with Dance. It is truly soul-affirming for me.

YE: How would you describe your work?

Neila: Psychological, cathartic, layered. I rarely go for the easy or obvious. I think I use my choreography to deal with and work with my ideas about life and living. My favorite form of choreography has always been Contemporary Dance because it can be almost anything you do.

YE: What kind of dance do you do?

Neila: I am a contemporary dancer who loves to improvise.

YE: Which company/group do you dance with, if any?

Neila: I currently dance with eNKompan.E, which is my own company… of one. I have previously performed and guested with the Stella Maris Dance Ensemble, The University Dance Society, The NDTC, The ACADCO, Dance Theater Xaymaca and many companies in the UK.

YE: What artists/dancers have influenced you and how?

Neila: I owe so much to so many. My founding influences were my first dance teachers, Monika Lawrence, Carol Murdock (now deceased) and Patsy Ricketts, all of whom nurtured my zest and passion for dance at a very young age without being patronizing.

I was treated like a young artist in the making and learned so much professionalism and respect for my art from these masters. Patsy, in particular, gave me such excellent examples of how to embody a performance. I carry this with me to this day. I am also influenced by Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson, now Director of the School of Dance. Through his example I understood the fundamental importance of the educational potential of the art of Dance.

My years at UWI saw me work with Joseph Robinson, L’Antoinette Stines and Howard Daly, each of whom broadened the scope of dance for me, showing me another angle, another side of the prism, another possibility – L’Antoinette with her deep. connection through dance to the spiritual and ancestral; Joe, with his always energetic proposals of the impossible; Howard, with his willingness to take risks with content and presentation.

It goes without saying (although I have to say it), that I am also influenced by Professor Rex Nettleford and the NDTC. Every summer of my formative dance years was spent @ the NDTC Dance season, absorbing the visual lessons in choreography, stage and performance. In addition, Professor Nettleford’s bilingual intellect (artistic and verbal) helped me own both aspects of myself and see the wonderful form of the critical mind and body in motion.

The tutelage of Arsenio Andrade, principal dancer of the NDTC and lecturer in Cuban-modern technique has also played an important part in the way he now understands the connection of the body to rhythm and space. I have also been blessed to have contemporaries such as Chris Walker, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Marlon Simms, Michael Holgate and Oniel Pryce, who, through their willingness to find voice through choreography and performance, strengthen my own determination, every day.

Internationally I have been influenced by the work of a number of contemporary choreographers including Jiri Kylian, Lloyd Newson (DV8 Physical Theatre), Ulysses Dove, Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp and Mia Michaels.

YE: What other interests do you have outside of dancing?

Neila: I like to read almost anything. I am also crazy about yoga. I plan to take up horse riding and karate.

YE: What inspires you to stay motivated when things get tough?

Neila: The dream that was put in my soul. When things get tough, I have to turn inward and call to mind that dream and the sense of justice that dream brings.

YE: Who are some dance companies you admire?

Neila: I always appreciate specific pieces from each of our great Jamaican dance companies – newer and older works. As for Jamaican dancers, some of the ones that really moved my heart include Patsy Ricketts, Arlene Richards, Natalie Chung, Arsenio Andrade, N’Jelle Gage, Simone Harris, Marlon Simms, Chris Walker, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Anika Jobson, Sade Bully, Guy Thorne. His commitment to the stage and to his own honesty when on that stage is truly admirable.

Internationally I like the work of DV8 Physical Theatre, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Kettly Noel and Urban Bush Women, among others.

YE: What is the best and worst part of being a dancer?

Neila: Dancing can fill you with so much joy. When you put in the time and effort in tests and classes, more often than not your emotional reward is just as satisfying. To know that you can effectively communicate big and small ideas without words and moreover, touch someone else’s heart through your art is what brings me back to Dance. Also, it’s wonderful to have such a deep and connected understanding of your body and its potential.

The same focus of the body can be the worst, if one does not handle the transition and rest well. Dance is first of all a physical art, and so the body will wear out, wounds, it needs to heal. For some, it will never be like before the injury and so the dancer will be able to wrap his mind around this reality and continue to live. It sounds easy, but it is very difficult.

YE: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Neila: In 10 years I would have just entered my 40s. I will be in my prime and always on stages internationally, performing and directing workshops… enriching life through Dance. My company will be in full swing and will create opportunities for others who want to dance their lives.

YE: How would you describe the state of the dance world in Jamaica?

Neila: Rich and fertile in ideas, but too fragmented to cultivate in a healthy way. We have a plethora of choreographers who enjoy the challenges of expressing their views through their bodies, but I find that most try to express themselves in the same way. I don’t see the real odds being taken often enough (I’m guilty of this too). I feel like we’re holding back and trying to maintain a sort of status quo. There is, for now, a forum for dialogue and cooperation at its deepest level.

YE: If you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?

Neila: I do now. The only thing I have increased is international travel and earnings.

YE: How did you develop your skill?

Neila: I formally studied dance and performance in Jamaica and the UK, at Edna Manley College and the University of Surrey (MA Physical Theatre). Every day, however, I develop my skill, as every day I am actively learning more about my craft.

YE: Professional dancing? i.e. are they paid to dance? do you want

Neila: I dance professionally, I choreograph professionally, I give professional lessons.

YE: What goes through your head when you do it?

Neila: Difficult question. Sometimes there is an internal narrative, the images I conjure up in my mind that help me make the movements with interpretative sensitivity. Sometimes there are accounts. Sometimes they listen for music cues, looking for movement cues. Sometimes I’m actively connecting with an audience member or someone else on stage. Sometimes there is a malfunction of the dress or some other error and I am many steps ahead in my mind, correcting it. Sometimes there is the happiness of my body that is on autopilot. And all of this can happen in 30 seconds or less of dancing.

YE: What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?

Neila: God’s gift of life. I recognized that the first breath of the morning means that I have something to do. I’m not done yet.

YE: Final thoughts?

Neila: If there’s a song in your heart, please sing it…. A dance, please take it to the street… no matter how many people think it’s weird. We all come here with our talents and society tells us we have to hide them because they make it too hard for us to fit in with everyone else. I say do what your heart asks and then everyone else wants to join you. That’s why you were made in the first place.

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