I remember the New Year’s Day routine in years gone by for thousands of Saint Lucians, of going from Assou Square on the Columbus Square to matinee theatre entertainment at Gaiety or Clarke’s cinema. The experience in the cinema was one of great movie storytelling in classic spectacles such as the “Sons of Thunder”, “The Secret Seven”, “Seven against Rome”, “Spartacus and the Gladiators” and others. It was popular artistic entertainment that was so integral to the start of the New Year in Saint Lucia.
The Avad Dance Ministry has for the past twelve years been reestablishing such an experience in Dance Theatre for hundreds of Saint Lucians, with an annual production at the National Cultural Centre. Their 2016 storytelling production of the classic biblical story of Moses was a mostly pleasing spectacle, full of charm and honest entertainment that did not disappoint the very large and appreciative audience who showed up.
Kudos must first be extended to the Director, Alphia Emmanuel and her management team for the tremendously efficient job of successfully managing such a huge cast of children and young persons on stage and off. Just imagine over sixty children of all ages on stage at the same time in some of the dance pieces and the remarkably smooth transitions that were achieved from piece to piece. Imagine further the management stresses of preparations and rehearsals involving probably over 100 persons, predominantly children, in the production process. The Avad Dance Ministry can definitely boast of significant success with the production beyond the stage, by accounting for the lifelong value to all participants from this positive engagement with the arts for the socio-spiritual development of our community. Their final product for 2016 attracted an audience from the community that transcended religious denominations, social classes and ages. They were all generally inspired by the excellent storytelling, the children, the music and the dance.
This year Avad used Dance Theatre to present one of the greatest biblical stories of all times under the title “EXODUS”, and a sub-title “God’s Promise is Everlasting”. It was a narrative told through the use of a variety of media including an unseen narrator, music and dance, photography and video. The narrator’s voice was engaging and powerful as it guided the audience through the story of Moses and the Israelites journey through oppression and struggle, to freedom by the route of their faith and God’s love. His clarity of expressions with effective and appropriate dramatic voice modulations made for excellent storytelling and held the audience’s attention throughout. The use of still photos and video visuals at discreet points in the dances further enhanced the strength of the narration.
The actual presentation on stage was a highly entertaining and spiritually uplifting affair that was achieved through the discipline of the performers, an exciting variety of sound, costume and dance choices, and a few pleasant surprises. Despite the average technical proficiency of many of the dancers, the choreographer successfully drilled this very large group of dancers into a disciplined and confident cast that supported each other and confidently masked most individual dancer weaknesses. Many parents and well-wishers of the young ones must have been thrilled by the generosity of the choreographer in giving so many different individuals a solo dance focus moment on stage apart from the major solos.
There were at least twenty five individual dance pieces of varying degrees of presentation success but generally interesting in the variety of choreographic ideas attempted. We were treated to a ribbon dance, a red sheet dance, a frog dance, a stick dance, a bowtie dance, and a combat dance among others. And much unlike some other “religious” events there was an embracing rather than castigation of popular movement forms of the now generation such as dancehall and hip-hop. The young dancers shone uninhibitedly with these. My favourite dances however were those that featured the natural charm and honest performances of the smallest children portraying the great plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. Picture the soft comedy in many tiny hopping green frogs dancing to the A cappella sounds of live frogs. Or picture the emotional scene of dead Egyptian first born children being carried about. Tremendous performance discipline was exhibited by those rag-doll children dancers who did not move a muscle out of place while acting dead.
There was also much entertaining variety in the music and audio choices for the dances. We heard traditional reggae, dancehall, soca, classic gospel, modern R&B gospel, Caribbean gospel, hip-hop and others. There were even dance numbers done to A ccapela sounds like croaking frogs and people crying. And there were some pleasing surprises such as a moving rendition of the classic gospel song “Go down Moses” by a guest trio of young male singers, and a tap dance to the rhythm of many tapping feet.
Some interesting creative choices were evident in costuming and the use of colour. The flora and fauna of a river bank was successfully portrayed with the costuming and movement of small children; frogs were portrayed by the use of big eyes on large green caps; the red sea was symbolically evoked by dancers in red joined by a large red sheet; gold hair registered the affluence of the Egyptian royalty; black and red were used appropriately to evoke blood and death. The deliberate use of non-stylized contemporary youth fashions for some dances helped connect the production message with today’s reality.
The performing arts work of the Avad Dance Ministry is developmental and it is therefore important that as they celebrate another successful production they must identify weaknesses and work to continuously improve on their standard. There are a few that were visible in this production. The majority of the dancers were very confident on stage and obviously enjoying their dancing, but apart from just a few they are still lacking in technique. They need to know that they can do much better and be facilitated with proper technical training opportunities. The impact of the production was diminished by it being too long and unnecessarily dragged out after at least two points where it could have ended appropriately. This also spoilt a possible uplifting finale effect. A little more vigilance from the stage management would have avoided the annoyance for the audience of having to tolerate an error on the backdrop visuals for an entire half of the show. The confusing prominently visible caption “EXODUS /romise is ever” was only corrected in the second half to read “EXODUS/God’s Promise is Everlasting”. In the area of choreography there appears to have been missed opportunities for the achievement of greater spectacle at two points in the story that begged for it: The parting of the red sea and the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
However the final words must be of congratulations to the Avad Dance Ministry for a generally wonderful evening of entertainment and spiritual upliftment to start the New Year. I am suggesting that having now successfully established the Dance Theatre production as a popular annual New Year’s Day activity they should now do the logical thing and let it run for the two or three days of Assou Square. The product of so much work should not just disappear with one performance on one night. More people should be given the opportunity to experience it.