COCO Dance Festival 2014

Updated: November 22, 2014

COCO Dance Festival 2014 in pictures

The Contemporary Choreographers’ Collective (COCO) Dance Festival opened in Queen’s Hall on Friday 3rd October, 2014, for its sixth annual showcasing of dance pieces from across the Caribbean and around the world. The festival this year differed from previous years in that it included a greater number of dancers and choreographers from outside the Caribbean region. The show kicked-off with an effervescent performance of Sharifa Hodge’s “Farm Girls” from the local Eh Beh Oui Don Don dance company. The COCO Award Ceremony commenced thereafter with sponsors being recognized for their support. They include First Citizen’s Bank, estuary PR, the Embassy of the French Republic, the United States Embassy, the Ministry of Community Development Prime Minister’s Best Village Programme, the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism, the University of South Florida, the Texas Tech University, the Neal and Massy Foundation, Scrip-J, CCN TV6 and COCO’s main collaborator, the Alliance Française.

Members of Eh Beh Oui Don Don perform Sharifa Hodge's choreography 'Farm Girls'
Members of Eh Beh Oui Don Don perform Sharifa Hodge’s choreography ‘Farm Girls’

The first award category for the evening was the Young Maverick Award which was bestowed upon Mr. Elvis Radgman of Tobago. Mr. Radgman is a dancer who received his early training from the Annette Nicholson-Alfred Tobago Academy of Performing Arts. He made history by becoming the first person to achieve a dance scholarship from the Tobago House of Assembly. Thereafter, he studied at Hunter College in Manhattan but returned to his community to focus on the development of dance in Trinidad and Tobago. He now serves as the dance officer at the Tobago House of Assembly. Radgman optimized his position in the Culture Division combined with the resources of his own dance troupe, the Urban Ritual Dance Company, to create the Tobago Contemporary Dance Festival. It will see its third installation in 2015.

In addition to a trophy, each recipient was presented with a cluster of highly prized Trinidad and Tobago cocoa beans. It was explained that “just as our cocoa is considered the best in the world, we strive to recognize the best in the dance community.”

The second category in the awards ceremony was the Trailblazers Award. Three recipients were selected and lauded for their contribution to local dance. The first Trailblazer recipient was Ms. Charlene Harris who was described as having “the heart of a lion and a dancer in one . . . passionate about her craft.” Her membership with the Noble Douglas Dance Company Inc. has spanned over two decades serving in several capacities: as an ensemble member, a soloist and a co-producer in many of the company’s presentations. At present, she serves as the company’s Associate Artistic Director and has worked with the Tobago Academy of Performing Arts in conjunction with the Tobago House of Assembly to effect the transformation of a former government office into the Bacolet Dance Studio. Her presence also defined the world of local reality television when she judged Trinidad and Tobago’s first ever reality dance show, The BMobile Dance Off. In 2009, she opened another dance studio in San Fernando called And 5678 realizing another dream and adding further opportunities for dance students to train and learn.

The second recipient of the Trailblazers Award was Mrs. Heather Henderson-Gordon. A well-known figure on the stage since the 1970’s, she pursued her tertiary studies in dance at the world-renowned Juliard School. She returned home and concentrated her efforts on teaching. In 1986 she established the La Danse Caraibe Dance School where she pioneered a fast and varied curriculum which included Modern Dance, Caribbean Folk Dance, Limbo, Ballet, Tap Dance and Hip Hop. While she has prepared over two hundred students for the Royal Academy of Dance and the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing international examinations, her curriculum remains rooted in developing all-rounded dancers who can master local and foreign styles. She has also distinguished herself as an executive member of the National Dance Association of Trinidad and Tobago and has produced and co-produced several dance routines for major theatrical and entertainment productions. Her efforts in nurturing and inspiring the dance world in Trinidad and Tobago were acknowledged with the presentation of this award.

(L): Jélae Stroude-Mitchell, winner of the COCO 2014 Choreographer Award
(L): Jélae Stroude-Mitchell, winner of the COCO 2014 Choreographer Award

The third recipient of the Trailblazers Award was The Dai Ailian Foundation which was formed in August 2011, to raise awareness for Trinidadian-born Ailian Isaac, also known as Madam Dai. She is commonly hailed as the mother of Chinese ballet for her contribution to the field of Dance in the homeland of her native Chinese immigrant grandparents. Dai Ailian is one of the founding members of the world-famous Beijing Dance Academy in China and her accomplishments both at home and abroad are well-known. Her foundation links her achievements and status in the Chinese Dance Community with the aspirations of young performing artists in Trinidad and Tobago by granting scholarships to local dancers who demonstrate ability, artistry and passion to pursue studies in dance at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. Dancers have since been blazing an exciting trail to China and the Foundation was duly recognized for its efforts towards this end.

The next category was the Vanguards Award. Dr. Mervyn Sandy, former principal of Tranquility Government Secondary School, was heralded for his tireless advocacy for art education in the school curriculum. As a Doctor of Education in Planning and Curriculum Development, he was uniquely positioned to create policies which would result in the opportunity for many gifted youngsters to engage their talent. The dance community is particularly grateful to him for his concerted campaign spanning decades petitioning for a Secondary School Dance Festival which finally became a reality in 2009. The Dance Festival is now managed by the National Dance Association of Trinidad and Tobago and the Curriculum Planning and Development Division of the Ministry of Education. The competition itself provides an important creative platform for young people to blossom on the stage in front of teachers and peers. Countless dance practitioners applauded this venture and it became a reality largely through the efforts of Dr. Mervyn Sandy. COCO acknowledged his contribution with a Vanguards Award.

Ralph Dyette, recipient of the COCO 2014 Vanguard Award
Ralph Dyette, recipient of the COCO 2014 Vanguard Award

The next recipient of the Vanguards Award was Mrs. Linda Pollard-Lake, an associate member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance and a qualified teacher and performer in all the major examinations on the Royal Academy of Dance. She has gained a solid reputation as a choreographer for Broadway inspired shows such as the local production of “West Side Story”, “Little Shop of Horrors” and most recently, “The Wiz”. As a local television pioneer, she has been a judge on many television talent competitions such as Teen Talent and Twelve and Under in the 1970’s and 1980’s led by 2013 COCO Award recipient, the late Mrs. Hazel Ward Redman. Mrs. Pollard-Lake has judged many National Arts Festivals such as the Prime Minister’s Best Village Trophy Competition and has also served as a dance educator in the Trinidad and Tobago Government’s Continuous Assessment Programme for primary schools. She became a key figure in the evolution of the dance continuum of Trinidad and Tobago for which she was recognised with a Vanguards Award.

Mr. Everald ‘Red man’ Watson was the third recipient. As a percussionist for over thirty years, he had travelled around the world with many dance companies. His collaborations include Ella Andall, Andre Tanker and 3Canal. He cut an imposing figure as the section leader for the bass section in the award-winning Renegades Steel Orchestra and also served as the drill master for the band. As a master drummer, he is much sought after as a teacher in schools across the country but he is most recognizable in the dance world as a “phenomenal percussionist with impeccable rhythm in classes and on stage.” COCO paid tribute to him with the presentation of a Vanguards Award.

The following recipient, Mr. Ralph Dyette, was hailed as the embodiment of the spirit of the King Sailor Mas. He has shared his creativity and expertise by performing and teaching local and international organizations throughout the years. Both the dance and the costume have become an integral part of the Trinidad and Tobago aesthetic and he is himself, a difficult figure to miss in any crowd. Mr. Dyette showed off some of the buoyant moves for which he is well-known as he danced his way across the stage to receive a Vanguard Award for his individual endeavour.

The sod for Queen’s Hall was turned in 1958 and the facility was officially opened in 1959 despite the many challenges at that time. It has since offered a home for the arts thanks to the tireless efforts of Ms. Heather M. Johnson whose “activism, determination and love for the arts ensured that the theatre became a reality.” Fifty five years later, it stands as a bedrock in the support of many art forms. COCO extended its thanks to Queen’s Hall “for facilitating creative expression and for unwaveringly accommodating the performing arts in Trinidad and Tobago.” This final Vanguard Award was presented to Queen’s Hall and was received on its behalf by Chairman of Queen’s Hall Board, Dr. Helwig Hilwig.

The last award to be distributed that evening was the COCO Choreographer’s Award. This award is given for “innovation and/or consistency of choreographic practice within and outside of the COCO Dance Festival.” This year the award went to Ms. Jelae Straude Mitchell. A recipient of the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s first award under its dance programme and a student of the Academy of the Performing Arts, she had proven herself time and again to be one of the more daring young choreographers in the country. Her work often addressed sensitive and controversial subject matters which she holds up to the public eye in bold style. For this reason, she was selected for the COCO Choreographer’s Award.

Pre-show: Akuzuru's presentation of
Pre-show: Akuzuru’s presentation of “The Elemental \l > Hail For Stones

Once the awards had been distributed, the festival continued and ran for three nights with selections showcasing local and foreign contemporary dance pieces. One such distinctive presentation came from local artist, Akuzuru. Her piece “The Elemental \l > Hail For Stones” was a series of movements that reflected a relationship between the planets and “how we interact within that relationship.” Her piece was a two-day outdoor performance engaging the public in the Queen’s Hall Car Park which she executed alongside eight co-performers from the Metamorphosis Dance Company and drummer, Everald ‘Red man’ Watson. She described her contribution as an interaction with movement saying:

I have worked it with previous projects over the year. I like the relationship between dance and actual performance and blurring the lines between the two. Art is a very complete practice so I engage in all practices of art. So if it’s a dance festival, an architectural finale or something like that, I like to interact with that in what I do as an artist. So it’s a multi-disciplinary approach.

Akuzuru is an international artist based in Trinidad and she shared that the COCO Dance Festival is not her first such project. She discussed her supporting dancers saying, “I was lucky enough to have sourced them from the Metaphorsis Dance Company. They are very young but the young energy is also a positive energy. I like working with young people because they have a very honest and very direct kind of energy that is very potent for the kind of work that I do.” Of the public response to the festival she opined:

Well I would like to see that more people, more patrons, understand the importance of dance in the building of nationhood . . . the importance of art in our lives, in the landscape . . . to see the various ways in which body movement [can occur] . . . the use of the body and how that is related to the way you think daily and how you gesture. It’s all about gesturing and what all these gestures mean because each gesture has a different meaning. So I’m just hoping; it’s for people to learn something. It’s an education. It’s an artistic education about the body and how it is being used, and how the body is very central to the way we interact with each other as citizens of this country.

She felt that additional support to the field should be given by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, saying:

I think more can be done; more should be highlighted. Dance is very important and art, generally, is very important. I think that should be a major, major investment in terms of time. Yes, money is also extremely important, but, in terms of time and also interest, genuine interest in the arts, and not just to commercialise it too much. Yes, we’re seeing the monetary benefits but you also seeing it as the building of one’s self esteem for the youth basically in the building of character, in the building of culture in the landscape.

She smiled as she discussed the growth in the art fraternity via up and coming dancers, offering this:

My thing is that youth is a beautiful thing and youthfulness is wonderful. But in being wonderful and in being exuberant one also has to control [one’s] gestures. You’re growing every day so I think it is important for the youth to actually build a sense of discipline about the way they do things; they have to have discipline and they have to build that character because everyone is an individual. Even though you are working as a community you are an individual person. And it’s only when you change yourself as an individual in a very positive way that the entire world will actually change in a very positive way.

Dance performance of Jacob Cino's choreography 'Striking'
Dance performance of Jacob Cino’s choreography ‘Striking’

A new dancer who scored with the local audience was Mr. Jacob Cino of Canada. He has been in Trinidad on a study visa studying folkloric dance. His piece, which was delivered in sections, is titled “Striking.” His preferred style of dancing is called ‘contact improvisation’ and the piece he choreographed reflects this. He explained in some detail what his dance was about:

The piece is called “Striking” and is a play on words. Striking can mean many things: it can mean licks, it can mean something very beautiful or it can be a form of protest/revolt. It was really for me an exploration of looking at a few different subjects, how we can. As we’re brought into our body we’re brought into a certain place in this world and we’re brought into a certain ethnicity. And I just think that informs us so far as our experience in life but also so does culture. So coming from a different culture I have a different perspective of Trinidadian cultures than perhaps Trinis do. And one of the things that is really quite different for me from my cultural perspective is the use of violence and using violence as a teaching tool, which I disagree with. And for me, at one section you’ll see us punching and this we call the ancestral punch. That can represent an actual punch and also an ancestral punch. How different generations can continue dysfunction! And it’s really up to the individual to stop it. There’s another section called the injuries section where dancers are often told to go past their injury . . . ignore their injury and keep dancing. And this is really about working with limitations so you also see a section where people are trying to do something but their ankles are giving out and things like that. Also, [there is the] observation dance. This is the people holding the space or giving energy to the dancer by observing them. As a dancer, if we’re dancing for ourselves, it’s different to if we have an audience fuelling us. And in the final section it’s really an exploration of the joy of dance and how dance transcends against culture and location.

So as we’re dancing and freestyling again we see that background video that I’ve collaged of different viral videos of dance from all around the world. There’s Tibetans dancing, there’s Iranians dancing which in Iran can be illegal and we’re also looking at how critical mass of amount of people can create change, and drawing it. At one section in the video you’ll see police trying to get through Carnival, crossing the savannah stage and people blocking the police. And so to me, of how carnival and it’s history of emancipation was being squashed and put into Carnival and now it’s being separated from Carnival again, but also how protests and Carnival have similar movement as far as the mass of people and people reclaiming the streets and allowing themselves to say you know we have the right to be here. And also looking at if revolution, protest, would have joy in it, would there be dance? And then I believe there would be so.

Mr. Cino went on to detail his experience of studying dance in the local community via a grant he received from the Quebec government, which allows him to represent his art in a foreign country. He shared that he’d gotten the opportunity to work with the Malick Folk Dancers along with contemporary groups locally and was able, through his collaborations, to develop his own work. Cino noted that:

Mostly what I see in Trinidad is ballet, modern and folk, then variants of West African Soca dance. But contemporary dance is a very wide spectrum as far as what can be defined as contemporary dance. For me, I’m noticing this year that – perhaps it’s the influence of more foreign choreographers and dancers – breaking away from what I’d call, what I often see in Trinidad as more entertainment in the dance world and less of the art world. And what I mean by art it doesn’t have to always be graceful or cool or big moves, flips and stuff like that – and not to belittle that as having value – but there are other spectrums of expressions in the art world, weird, quirky, angry, sad, all these kinds of other emotions that I don’t see often represented. But this year in the festival I see a lot more of that. People go to places that might not necessarily be popular or fit into what I’d call entertainment but allowing for other subjects and emotions to be touched on.

He briefly touched on the methods of local dance groups such as Malick Folk Dancers observing:

As far as the creation and learning process, it’s very fast and not as much correction from the choreographers. It’s see and do, which is also very liberating in a sense, because it’s not as dictatorial. There’s definitely a right and wrong way to do it, but it also allows the individual to have their individual differences. Some of the women are quite large and they’re still dancing in the piece. So on the dance floor again body type can be very specific on what kind of person can dance. And in the folk scene it’s really about whether you like dancing and you’re a good dancer, dance.

He admitted that what stood out to him the most about Trinidad and Tobago culture was that “liming is a commodity. In Canada if you’re liming you’re wasting time and time is money. But liming is a value here; [it’s] culturally supported to take that time to enjoy life.”

Santee Smith of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre performs her choreographic work 'NeoIndigenA'
Santee Smith of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre performs her choreographic work ‘NeoIndigenA’

Another Canadian dancer making her mark in the Trinidad and Tobago dance world was Santee Tekaronhiahkhwa Smith of Canada. She was in artistic residency in Trinidad for three weeks and had taught a master class mere days after her arrival in the country, thereby affording her the opportunity to closely interact with the contemporary dancers in Trinidad. As the founder and Artistic Director of the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, she disclosed that she’d had the opportunity to connect with some really great artists through COCO. She concluded that “what people are exploring, bringing in – social dances, classical . . . just the variety . . . it’s very interesting.”

She spoke about her contribution to the Festival, stating:

NeoIndigenA is what I would call a performance ritual or ritual performance. I don’t usually use the word dance because it’s not really dance. As an artist, I’m not interested in dance movement for movement’s sake; mine has a personal narrative to it. The tricky part of me being here is that I’m only showing a short excerpt from a larger work. So the solo is a seventy minute solo and I’m only doing about twelve minutes here, so it’s a little bit out of context. It’s a little picture which I think is good for people to see. The piece that I’m doing, I start in the earth realm; the whole piece travels between earth, sky world and underworld. I’m an individual . . . like a shaman going through transformations between all realms. So when I start out, I’m in the earth realm and I start calling to my ancestors, also speak out to creation that I’m here. I exist and then I go into mostly earth-world or earth inspired transformation; so I’m all manner of plants and animals. I embody elements of the natural world and that’s [from] the first section. So I am also transforming into a hunter. So there is a hunter in four directions. And out of that, I switch into another section where I am moving into more of the underworld. So I’m transforming my body with a little bit of what we call regalia and it’s very abstracted-out regalia. So I have a headpiece with deer jaws and I have leggings with horse hair on them, so it’s a little bit again about the theme of transformation. I’m physically transforming the exoskeleton of my body and then opening myself to be embodied by the spirit of what is very insectlike – the insect or the underworld beings. Those are pieces that I enjoy and fit into the timeframe, those were two strong transformation sections so I thought those would be good to share.

She indicated that her local experience had also exposed her to the history of the Amerindians in Trinidad which forms a part of her research. Her exploration of the island included Banwari Trace and the Santa Rosa Community. She advised that any person wishing to engage in dance or performance art not allow one type of training to limit his/her potential:

“I think that training is really important. That’s what I say to a lot of up and coming artists. But not only training your body, but also performance training. [In other words,] how to translate everything that you learn in the class and then bring that to the stage with energy and performance. For me, I like working with artists who are very versatile so they’re not necessarily stuck in one form so that they’re able to embody different movements, different dynamics, and also being very performative and expressive at the same time.”

Dave Williams performs his choreographic work 'Older'
Dave Williams performs his choreographic work ‘Older’

Indeed, the themes of the pieces in this year’s COCO Dance Festival varied in emotive depth and diversity. Co-Founder of the Contemporary Choreographers’ Collective, Mr. Dave Williams also performed a piece entitled “Older” at the festival this year. He explained that the dance was a part of a piece that he was doing with the Noble Douglas Company and it was a piece which was molded to reflect aging and vanity. He noted:

We all age and this is one of the more interesting things that everybody gets to do but everyone don’t share their experiences. This piece kind of constructed itself – the ‘I don’t need you’ to me in the mirror – and then the mirror reflecting the people in the audience who become a part of the frame. The [reflected] images you see of the people are the people who are inside of my frame. It’s a contemporary work and it’s up to the audience to interpret.

He added that the sifting of powder onto the glass at the end was “a sort of rest in peace; a burial of the vanity and the burial of the reflection of the self and all of the things that the mirror had seen.”

Below are a list of the dance performances and the choreographers who produced them.

Dance Piece / Choreographer:

  • Farm Girls – Sharifa Hodge
  • Mahogany 1976 – Noble Douglas
  • The Transient More – Jillene Forde
  • Beyond Words – Kinesha Charleau
  • Into Mergence – Jeanne Travers
  • NO! – Jelae Stroude-Mitchell
  • Oshe – Sherma burke
  • Kid Lucky – Robin Cantrell and Sean Scantlebury
  • NeoIndigenA – Santee Smith
  • Un Moment – Juan-Pablo Alba-Dennis
  • Punchline – Genevieve Durham DeCesaro
  • The Elemental \l > Hail For Stones – Akuzuru
  • Walk the Talk – Sonja Dumas
  • Summer Fall – Sean Scanntlebury
  • Striking – Jacob Cino
  • Older – Dave Williams
  • Hidden Curriculum – Deliece Knights
  • In My Reach – Sade Chance
  • Beach Vybes – Nigel Sanchez; Ibis Dance Company
  • School Days – New Edition
  • Ashes – Jillene Forde

COCO Dance Festival 2014 in pictures:

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