“Rosie” – the quintessential Caribbean woman

By Juan-Pablo Alba Dennis

Since its inception in 2010, the “Dance and Performance Institute of Trinidad and Tobago” has consistently brought and fostered a committed and focused type of performance art to national performance spaces. On Thursday July 28th, I had the opportunity to witness the fruit of the Institute’s continued labor at New Waves Presents, which was hosted at the “Trinidad Theater Workshop”. Under the  Direction of Makeda Thomas, the New Waves! Institute opened the doors of the TTW to present two performing artists for the evening.

Jhawhan Thomas’ who placed third overall in this year’s King of Carnival competition for his portrayal of Peter Minshall’s “The Dying Swan,” performed “The Ase of Moko”. To the surprise of many of the audience members waiting to be ushered into the auditorium, inside the theatre space was not where the spectacle began. There was a rush to go outside onto Jerningham Avenue after we were collectively informed that the night’s performances started with Mr. Thomas’ Moko Jumbie rendition in the streets. At times Thomas’s character seemed to be a hovering shadow, looking down on us all with corporeality that clearly left his authority undoubted. With what appeared to be black paint smeared all over his body, a loin cloth and a mask that gave his demeanor wise stature he left the notion of an old character warding off bad spirits giving us a safe space to reside for the duration of the evening. Having to direct traffic at times amidst his stomps and elegant stride he eventually left us to witness the true walk of a Moko Jumbie, walking tall, tall, tall.

We then congregated in TTW’s main performance space, anticipating the highlight of the evening which was New Waves! 2016 Artist-In-Residence, Fana Fraser’s “Rosie”. Ms. Fraser, an alumna of “The Caribbean School of Dancing” and Ailey/Fordham’s BFA program, was a member of the “Ailey II” company and is now looking forward to taking up the position of rehearsal director for said company.

 As the audience settled in and the performance began, we were immediately drawn in by the bag left on stage. It was one of those market bags you may be familiar with – the ones made of a sturdy plastic, plaid with handles and a zip. This was also something that the soloist would take immediate interest in. “Rosie”  as her character was called, was dressed in a sheer nightgown with rollers in hair and came onto the stage and set the atmosphere to a light “homey” feeling. The intricacy and detail with which “Rosie” dealt with the props in her space fostered another level of curiosity. This was not a showy dance performance, nor was it  a “skin and grin” dance number to which the audience would applaud and yell encore, it was closer to home than possibly any of the audience member could have envisaged prior to stepping into the theatre. You see, Ms. Fraser’s reputation for technical prowess and beautiful lines were what many in the dance circuit knew her for, however this level of commitment and dedication to character is not something you can learn in a classroom. Ms. Fraser describes “Rosie” as a “whirlwind of absurdity” which she places in the context of home and a Caribbean landscape. The hardest part for an audience with performances like “Rosie”, I believe, is their willingness (or not) to walk into a space and leave their expectations at the door. For anyone that didn’t, I think they could still be questioning what they saw. There was almost a magical sense in her presence and the telling of our stories in different subtler ways is what made this performance effective. Fostering a sense of understanding the nuance in a glance or the pointing of a finger, “Rosie” is the quintessential Caribbean woman  going through something that we all want to know about. Through use of facial expressions we all witnessed how Ms. Fraser had full command of the audience and how invested they were in discovering what was next for “Rosie”. A phone call later and a quick change into a dazzling blue cocktail dress, Ms. Fraser reminded us all that her surefootedness and level of control in her movements is still marvelous to behold.

After the performance there was a Q and A mediated by curator and director Makeda Thomas where we saw how real “Rosie” could be for Ms. Fraser or anyone really. The reality of a narrative that changes for the dancer and the deliberate choices being made real time was somewhat of a surprise for some audience members, however Ms. Fraser embraced how chance played a big part of her characterization and portrayal of “Rosie”.  As Ms. Fraser said, her motif development would change and new things could happen in the middle of the storyline that “Rosie”  went through but there was a clear mapping out of the world that she inhabited on the stage.

I believe that there is room for more works like “Rosie” to change the dance landscape a bit in Trinidad and Tobago so that we can look at our stories in the multitudinous ways that they were meant to be told.

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