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Talking to One of Jamaica’s Most Exciting Dancer-Choreographers – Neila Ebanks
YE: Why did you become an artist/dancer and when did you first become a dancer?
Neila: I think I was born. My dance story begins when I was 3-4 years old. My mom sent me to a dance club, and I rehabilitated my too pigeon toe, and I’ve been dancing ever since. It is a natural language for me, like breathing.
My art chose me. I was not the instigator of the relationship. But every day I make the choice to affirm my soul by connecting with Dance. This is really reassuring for me.
EE: How would you describe your work?
Neila: Psychological, cathartic, layered. I rarely go for the easy or the obvious. I think I use my choreography to challenge and practice my own views on life and life. My favorite form of dance has always been modern dance because it can be almost anything you do.
EE: What kind of dancing do you do?
Neyla: I am a contemporary dancer who likes to improvise.
EE: If so, which company/group do you dance with?
Neila: Currently I dance with eNKompan.E, which is my own company… one. I have previously performed and toured with Stella Maris Dance Ensemble, The University Dance Society, The NDTC, L’ACADCO, Dance Theater Xaymaca and several UK companies.
EE: What artists/dancers have influenced you and how?
Neila: I am indebted to many people. My first dance teachers, Monica Lawrence, Carol Murdock (now deceased) and Patsy Ricketts, nurtured my passion for dance from an early age without patronizing it.
I was treated as a young artist and learned a lot of professionalism and respect for my art from these teachers. Patsy in particular gave me a great example of how to reflect on a performance. I carry it with me to this day. Nicolene DeGrasse-Johnson, who is now the Director of the School of Dance, also influenced me. Through her example, I understood the fundamental importance of the educational potential of dance.
My years at UWI saw me work with Joseph Robinson, L’Antoinette Steens and Howard Daly, each of whom broadened the horizons of dance for me, showing me a different angle, a different side of the prism, another possibility – L’Antoinette with Countess connecting with spirits and ancestors through dance; Joe, with his consistently energetic suggestions about the impossible; Howard is willing to take risks with content and presentation.
Needless to say (but I will) I was also influenced by Professor Rex Nettleford and the NDC. Every summer of my dance year was spent immersed in choreography, stagecraft, and performance classes during the UDET dance season. Furthermore, Professor Nettleford’s bilingual mind (artistic and verbal) helped me to master both sides of myself and see the wonderful harmony of a critical mind and a moving body.
The teachings of Arsenio Andrade, Principal Dancer and Cuban-Contemporary Techniques teacher at the National Dance Academy, played an important role in his understanding of the relation of the body to rhythm and space. I’ve also been blessed with contemporaries like Chris Walker, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Marlon Simms, Michael Holgate, and Oniel Price who strengthen my resolve every day in their desire to find their voice through choreography and performance.
Internationally, I have been influenced by the work of many contemporary choreographers including Jiri Kilian, Lloyd Newson (DV8 Physical Theatre), Ulysses Tauve, Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp and Mia Michaels.
EE: What other interests do you have besides dancing?
Neila: I like to read almost anything. I also practice yoga. I intend to practice horse riding and karate.
EE: What motivates you to stay motivated in difficult times?
Neila: A dream in my heart. When I’m in trouble, I need to turn inward and remember that dream and the sense of rightness that comes from that dream.
YE: Who are your favorite dance companies?
Neila: I always enjoy new and old productions from major Jamaican dance companies. As for Jamaican dancers, Patsy Ricketts, Arlene Richards, Natalie Chung, Arsenio Andrade, N’Jelle Gage, Simone Harris, Marlon Simms, Chris Walker, Shelley-Anne Maxwell, and Anika Jobson have all touched my heart. Sad Bully, Guy Thorne. Their honesty and commitment to the stage when they are on stage is admirable.
Internationally, I love DV8 Physical Theater, Danza Contemporary de Cuba, Kettley Noel, Urban Bush Women.
YE: What is the best and worst part of being a dancer?
Neila: Dance can fill you with such joy. When you put the time and effort into training and studying, your emotional rewards are often satisfying. Knowing that you can touch the hearts of others without words, big or small, and beyond through your art is what keeps me coming back to Dance. Plus, it’s great to have such a detailed and connected understanding of your body and its potential.
The same concentration of the body can be the worst part if one does not get through the transition and get good rest. Dance is primarily a physical art, so the body wears out, gets injured, and needs to heal. For some, it will never be the same as before the injury, so the dancer must be able to wrap their mind around this reality and continue living. It sounds easy, but it is very difficult.
EE: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Neila: In 10 years I would have just turned 40. I will be in my prime, performing on international stages, conducting workshops…enriching lives through dance. My company will continue to operate at full capacity and create opportunities for others who want to dance their lives away.
EE: How would you describe the state of the Jamaican dance scene?
Neila: Rich in ideas, fertile, but too fragmented to grow in the right way. We have many choreographers who struggle to express their ideas through their body, but most of them try to express themselves in the same way. I don’t see enough of the real potential (I’m guilty of that too). I think we’re trying to hold back and maintain some sort of status quo. Currently, there is no forum for dialogue and cooperation at the deepest level.
EE: If you could do anything, what would it be?
Neila: I’m doing it now. The only thing I would increase is foreign travel and income.
EE: How did you develop your skills?
Neila: I studied dance and performance formally at Edna Manley College and University of Surrey (MA Physical Theatre) in Jamaica and the UK. But every day I improve my skills because every day I learn more about the craft.
EE: Do you dance professionally? ie get paid to dance? do you want
Neila: I dance professionally, I choreograph professionally, I lecture professionally.
EE: What goes through your head when you perform?
Neila: That’s a tough question. Sometimes there’s an internal narrative and imagery that helps me make the movement feel descriptive. Sometimes there is a count. Sometimes I listen to music cues and watch for movement cues. Sometimes I actively connect with the audience or someone else on stage. Sometimes a garment breaks or something else goes wrong and I go to great lengths to fix it. Sometimes my body is on autopilot, and it’s bliss. All of this can happen in 30 seconds of dance or less.
EE: What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?
Neila: God’s gift of life. The first breath of the morning means I have something to do. I’m not done yet.
EE: Final thoughts?
Neila: If there’s a song in your heart, sing it…. Dance, do it all the way out on the street… no matter how many people think it’s weird. We all come here with our talents and society tells us to hide them because it makes it too hard for us to fit in. I say do what your heart desires and others will want to do the same with you. That is why you were created in the first place.
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