Marjorie Whylie's curtain call

By Richard Johnson Observer senior reporter

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

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LAST Sunday, composer/pianist Marjorie Whylie watched the National Dance Theatre Company's (NDTC) annual Easter Sunday performance from the other side of the curtain: the audience.

After spending 47 years with the outfit, 45 as musical director, Whylie has officially retired. She has made way for Ewan Simpson, who has been with the company for the past 15 years.

"I haven't been retired from the company long enough to feel a major difference," she said, adding that being in the audience last week was "an out of body experience."

Music is a way of life for the soft-spoken Whylie. She has enjoyed a long, rich and textured musical journey which began with training in classical piano in her formative years, growing up in the Collins Green community of St Andrew during the 1950s and 1960s.

As the NDTC's musical director, Whylie composed and arranged music and accompaniment for the creative dance ensemble, sharing the vision of its founders to create their own definitions of life and art, influenced by the Caribbean cultural experience.

Her introduction to the 51-year-old NDTC, however, occurred prior to its formation.

In 1962, she had been involved in the dance umbrella production Roots and Rhythms mounted for Jamaica's independence celebrations that year. She played piano for dance classes with Eddie Thomas, co-founder of the NDTC with Rex Nettleford.

On joining the company as a pianist in 1965, she said she was significantly influenced by NDTC founding member Ronan Critchlow who taught her a number of Caribbean traditional rhythms.

Whylie is celebrated for original compositions and unique musical arrangements for dance works, suites of songs and interludes.

For her, it is a natural inclination and dedication to expanding Jamaica's cultural history.

"It is a curiosity about our roots -- an exploration, then acceptance and understanding of the melting pot of influences that make us who we are, and what we're not. It is our cultural identity; our history that is so richly textured. There should be an absolute joy in our 'Jamaicanness'," she proclaimed.

Nettleford, in his 1985 book Dance Jamaica, credits Whylie's understanding of traditional music as being critical to the artistic direction of the company.

Whylie's first original music for the NDTC was created for Nettleford's Folkform in 1968. Between 1970 and 1977, she composed original scores for founding member Sheila Barnett's major works: Shadows, Mountain Women, Ni-Woman of Destiny and I Not I, as well as arrangements and short composed inserts for Nettleford's Married Story and Myal, on which she consulted legendary folklorist Louise Bennett. Her music is heard in Backlash which features the music of reggae legend, Toots Hibbert.

Many would argue that Whylie's collaboration with Nettleford in translating Caribbean rhythms into music, are most evident in the NDTC's revered works like Kumina (1971), Drumscore (1979) and Gerrehbenta (1983).

She also achieved high marks with the composition of music for Nettleford's Apocalypse (2009) -- the last before his death in February, 2010.

Whylie has her personal favourites:

"From the early days, I would say it was Legend of Lovers Leap with music by Oswald Russell. Mr Russell was an icon for whom I had the utmost respect... I particularly loved performing his music in that piece. From the middle period, it would be Kumina and recently Apocalypse because it required much innovation and drew something special out of me."

The company's current artistic director, Barry Moncrieffe noted that Whylie's original compositions and arrangements have been critical components of the "magic" of NDTC performances. He said it will form the largest historical reservoir of NDTC music, which is part of her legacy.

For Whylie, however, it is sharing that information with others that she hopes will be her stamp on the NDTC.

"I hope that my legacy will be that people remember me as a nurturer. That I nurtured talent, tried to foster good relationships within the group and gave people the respect that they deserve."

Whylie summed up her almost five decades of voluntary contribution to the NDTC by commenting:

"It satisfied your soul. What you got out of it when it worked. It really forced me to analyse what I was doing instinctively."

She will continue to serve the company as a consultant, and member of its management committee.

"Although the work was serious and important; all of it was enjoyable," she concluded.


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