Talking to One of Jamaica’s Most Exciting Dancer-Choreographers – Neila Ebanks

YE: Why are you an artist/dancer and when did you first become one?

Neila: I think I was born one. My dance story starts when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My mother sent me to dance classes to rehabilitate my extreme pigeon-toes and I have danced ever since. It’s a language as natural to me as breath.

My art chose me. I was not the instigator of the relationship. But daily I make the choice to affirm my soul through my connection with Dance. It really is soul-affirmation for me.

YE: How would you describe your work?

Neila: Psychological, cathartic, layered. I rarely go for the easy or obvious. I find I use my choreography to grapple with and work through my own ideas about life and living. My favourite form to choreograph in has always been contemporary Dance because it can be almost anything you make it.

YE: What type of dance do you do?

Neila: I am a contemporary dancer who LOVES to improvise.

YE: Which company/group do you dance with, if any?

Neila: At present I dance with eNKompan.E, which is my own company… of one. I have previously performed and guested with the Stella Maris Dance Ensemble, The University Dance Society, The NDTC, L’ACADCO, Dance Theatre Xaymaca and a number of companies in the UK.

YE: What artists/dancers have influenced you and how?

Neila: I have much to owe to so many. My foundation influences have been my first dance teachers, Monika Lawrence, Carol Murdock (now deceased) and Patsy Ricketts, all of whom nurtured my zest and passion for dance at a very young age without being patronizing.

I was treated as a young artist in the making and learnt so much professionalism and regard for my art from these teachers. Patsy, in particular, gave me such excellent examples of how to embody a performance. I carry that with me to this day. I also have been influenced by Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson, now Director of the School of Dance. Through her example I have come to understand the fundamental importance of the educative potential of the art of Dance.

My years at UWI saw me working with Joseph Robinson, L’Antoinette Stines and Howard Daly, each of whom widened the scope of dance for me, showing me another angle, another side of the prism, another possibility – L’Antoinette with her deep connection through dance to the spiritual and ancestral; Joe, with his consistently energetic proposals of the impossible; Howard, with his willingness to take risks with content and presentation.

It goes without saying (though I will say it), that I have also been influenced by Professor Rex Nettleford and the NDTC. Every summer of my formative dance years was spent @ the NDTC’s season of Dance, soaking up the visual lessons in choreography, stagecraft and performance. Further, Professor Nettleford’s bi-lingual intellect (artistic and verbal) helped me to own both aspects of myself and see the wonderful fit of the critical mind and the moving body.

The tutelage of Arsenio Andrade, principal dancer of the NDTC and lecturer in the Cuban-Modern technique has also played and important part in the way I now understand he body’s connection to rhythm and space. I have been blessed also to have contemporaries such as Chris Walker, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Marlon Simms, Michael Holgate and Oniel Pryce, who, through their willingness to find voice through choreography and performance strengthen my own resolve, daily.

Internationally I have been influenced by the work of a number of contemporary choreographers including Jiri Kylian, Lloyd Newson (DV8 Physical Theatre), Ulysses Dove, Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp and Mia Michaels.

YE: What other interests do you have outside of dance?

Neila: I enjoy reading almost anything. I am also crazy about yoga. I’m planning to take up horseback riding and karate.

YE: What inspires you to keep motivated when things get tough?

Neila: The dream that was put into my soul. When things get tough, I have to turn within and call to mind that dream and the feeling of rightness that the dream brings forth.

YE: Who are some dance companies that you admire?

Neila: I have always enjoyed specific pieces from each of our major Jamaican dance companies – newer and older works. As regards Jamaican dancers, a few of those who have really moved my heart include Patsy Ricketts, Arlene Richards, Natalie Chung, Arsenio Andrade, N’Jelle Gage, Simone Harris, Marlon Simms, Chris Walker, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Anika Jobson, Sade Bully, Guy Thorne. Their commitment to the stage and to their own honesty when on that stage is truly admirable.

Internationally I enjoy the work of DV8 Physical Theatre, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Kettly Noel and Urban Bush Women among others.

YE: What’s the best and worst parts of being an dancer?

Neila: Dance can fill you with such exhilaration. When you have put in the time and effort in rehearsals and classes, more often than not your emotional reward is so fulfilling. To know that you can effectively communicate ideas large and small without words and further, touch another’s heart through your art is what keeps me coming back to Dance. Additionally, it is wonderful to have such a thorough and connected understanding of your body and its potential.

The same body focus can be the worst part, if one does not handle transition and rest well. Dance is first and foremost a physical art, and so the body will wear down, become injured, need to heal. For some, it will never be as it was before injury and so the dancer has to be able to wrap her mind around this reality and continue to live. Sounds easy, but it’s very difficult.

YE: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Neila: In 10 years I would have just entered my 40s. I will be in my prime and still be on stages internationally, performing and leading workshops… enriching lives through Dance. My company will be in full-fledged swing and will be creating opportunities for others who wish to dance their lives.

YE: How would you describe the state of the dance world in Jamaica?

Neila: Rich and fertile in ideas, but too fragmented to grow in a sound way. We have a plethora of choreographers who enjoy the challenges of expressing their views through bodies, but I find that most are trying to express in the same way. I don’t see real chances being taken often enough (I am guilty of this too). I feel we are holding back and trying to maintain a status quo of sorts. There is, as yet, no forum for dialogue and cooperation on its deepest level.

YE: If you could be doing anything you wanted, what would that be?

Neila: I’m doing it now. The only thing I would increase is the international travel and the earnings.

YE: How have you developed your skill?

Neila: I have formally studied dance and performance-making in Jamaica and in the UK, at the Edna Manley College and at the University of Surrey (MA Physical Theatre). Every day, though, I develop my skill, as every day I am actively learning more about my craft.

YE: Do you dance professionally? i.e. Get paid to dance? Do you want to?

Neila: I dance professionally, I choreograph professionally, I lecture professionally.

YE: What’s going on in your head when you’re performing?

Neila: Difficult question. Sometimes there is an inner narrative, images which I call to mind which help me to perform the movements with interpretive sensitivity. Sometimes there are counts. Sometimes I am listening for music cues, watching for movement cues. Sometimes I am actively connecting with an audience member or someone else on stage. Sometimes there is a costume malfunction or some other error and I am many steps ahead in my mind, fixing it. Sometimes there is the bliss of my body being on autopilot. And all this can happen in 30 seconds or less of dance.

YE: What makes you want to get up out of bed in the morning?

Neila: God’s gift of life. Recognising that the first breath in the morning means I’ve got something to do. I’m not done yet.

YE: Final thoughts?

Neila: If there is a song in your heart, please sing it…. A dance, please do it all the way down the street… not matter how many people think you strange. We all come here with our talents and society tells us we are to hide them because they make us too hard to fit with everyone else. I say do what your heart asks you to and then everyone else will want to fit in with you. That’s why you were made in the first place.