Beryl McBurnie

Professor Rex Nettleford, Vice- Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), left Jamaica yesterday evening to fly to T&T.

Already, a committee has been formed to arrange her burial.

They include chairman of the Little Carib Theatre (which McBurnie founded) Aubrey Adams and Felipe Noguera, who had been caring for her for some time now.

The group has approached the Government to grant an official funeral for McBurnie.

Adams said the funeral might be tomorrow morning, as a nephew flying in from New York is expected in Trinidad tonight.

"The arrangements are dependent on all sorts of things," Adams said. "We have spoken to Government on the basis that Beryl had been awarded a $54,000 grant just recently to repair her home and she was in receipt of a monthly allowance from the State.

"She was appreciated at that level and they looked after her welfare and livelihood. It is against that backdrop, and a recent indication that Government is interested in recognising our cultural heroes, that we have made the request," Adams said.

McBurnie began her dance career in the 1940s. She attended Columbia University and studied under Martha Graham, then spent some years performing in the United States under the stage name "La Belle Rosette".

She could have had a bright future abroad. A London critic pronounced her "amusing, satirical, informative, occasionally naughty and altogether wonderful".

Instead, McBurnie returned to Trinidad and in 1948 opened the Little Carib Dance Company, in the backyard of her mother's home on Roberts Street, Woodbrook.

McBurnie, who lived at Panka Street, St James, in a house that doubled as a theatre and dance studio, complained of feeling unwell late on Wednesday night and was taken to the Medical Centre. She had been bedridden for some time.

Beryl made everyone go the extra mile.
DRIVERS who travelled along the Western Main Road in St James and knew Beryl McBurnie, often trade stories about her style of commuting, which frequently involved taking the benefactor off route to deliver her to places as far afield as San Fernando.

"Cocotte," she would say in her most endearing tone, "give Auntie Beryl a drop please."

And so you would end up giving the First Lady of Dance a lift from St James to San Fernando.

And you would only know where you were going when the city skyline began to fade into rural landscape.

But even as we lamented the disruption, we laughed, for Auntie Beryl always had the most extraordinary stories to tell.

On one such trip (which took us to Maracas, St Joseph), she supplied me with full details of her efforts to get one of her dancers, Pearl Marshall (now Marshall-Beard), to enter the Carnival Queen competition, a show that had hitherto been dominated by upper-class, light-skinned girls.

"The crowd was going for Pearl," Auntie Beryl said, "but the judges went for someone else and there was nearly a riot when the results were announced."

Marshall went on to become a flight attendant with British West Indian Airways (BWIA) and be celebrated as the first black woman to land such a job. That fact was not lost on thousands of American women, when her first flight to New York touched down at Idlewild (now John F Kennedy International) airport.

"She was mobbed and treated like much more of a queen than the young lady who eventually won the crown at the Carnival show," Aunty Beryl said.

While Marion Halfhide had won the title, Marshall went on to international fame, as she had landed in New York during the famous Rosa Parks stand against racial discrimination.

"There was also another case going on in the courts with a brown-skin girl who attempted to get a job with Pan Am and was refused because she was not white," Aunty Beryl explained. "So thousands went to meet her and brought her flowers and they treated her like their heroine," she surmised, "all because she had been able to break the barrier in their eyes."

Aunty Beryl went into much greater detail, telling the story almost mile-by-mile, as the flight must have travelled. On the ground, we had come to her destination and as she disembarked, the greeting she received was equally enthusiastic to that of Marshall's, although the number of people gathered to await her arrival was no more than three.

Every time I have told that story, listeners who had been similarly circumstanced remarked that I should thank my lucky stars that it was not the Saturday she wanted to go to La Brea, or that morning she felt the need to check on the health of a friend in Toco.

They all loved La Belle Rosette

"WE have lost the Mother of Dance," Julia Edwards said yesterday of the death of Beryl McBurnie.

Edwards, who runs her own dance troupe, described her passing as "a sad day for me and the group, because we have lost the mother of dance. This is one lady that's going to be hard to replace," she said. "We have always been close to Beryl and the Carib.

"In fact, we got closer during a tour to Venezuela in the 1960s, when Beryl's entire troupe came down with a nasty flu and she simply suggested that our limbo dancers fall into the costumes and do the calypso dance 'to keep the flag of Trinidad and Tobago flying.' Keeping this country in the forefront was all she was ever interested in doing."

Dancing on international stages under the name La Belle Rosette, McBurnie was widely respected as choreographer, dance tutor and surrogate mother to all who came under her tutelage.

Founder of the Little Carib Dance Company and the Theatre named after that group, McBurnie toured and created works that are still the basis of a lot of folk dances today. Famous for her sincerity to the creole forms of bele and pique, she inspired several dancers to develop groups of their own.

Aubrey Adams, artistic director of the Trinidad Folk Performing Theatre, who is a product of the Little Carib and has been, for the past 15 years, its chairman, said yesterday that McBurnie's passing was not only a great loss for culture, but for the nation as a whole.

"She has certainly been a cultural pioneer in this country and is often referred to as the mother of dance," Adams said. "When our folk art forms were being frowned upon as primitive, she is the one who brought out the dances and songs and music and gave them integrity. She sacrificed her entire life for the development of the arts in this country and her absolutely unselfish contribution in that regard is much more than one could reasonably expect from a single person."

Adams said, "She never married because she was already married to the arts."

At the Little Carib's opening in 1948, it was the first time that a steelband appeared on a stage.

Mc Burnie had come to the attention of then late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams who, among other beautiful things he said about Beryl, included a description of her as "a vanguard and a tremendous example to womanhood," in a time well before even the first hint of women's liberation.

Mc Burnie is also credited with having brought to the fore other artistic luminaries and produced dancing talent like Percy Borde, Sonny Bethelmy, Kelvin Rotardier, Stanley Skeete, Barbara Assoon, Joslynne Sealey, Pat and Cecile Maurice, Pearl Marshall and Molly Ahye.

Apart from Dr Williams, she managed to attract patronage from the likes of Wilson Minshall (father of Peter Minshall), Sir Hugh Wooding, Dr Patrick Solomon, Bruce Procope, Jack Kelshall, Andrew Carr, Audrey Jeffers, John 'Buddy' Williams and Albert Gomes; whose children were among the first to register, when Beryl started her junior section.

McBurnie patron of pan and parang

BERYL MC BURNIE was aptly titled Trinidad and Tobago's First Lady of Dance, but her role in the arts extended far outside the folk dancing and choreography for which she was internationally famous.

It was during WWII, in a period when the arts flourished locally, that names like Sybil Atteck, Errol Hill, Boscoe Holder and Beryl Mc Burnie first came to national attention.

While many of her contemporaries stuck to their basic disciplines, Mc Burnie went further afield, embracing all artistic pursuits, particularly the yet fledgling steelband movement, an alliance for which she was stoutly pilloried, given the prejudices of the day.

But Mc Burnie enjoyed the respect of some of the more prominent members of the society, including Ellis Clarke, who was later knighted and became the country's first President. Among the dancers she trained were Karl Hudson-Phillips, QC, the recently re-elected president of the Law Association, Kelvin Rotardier, who went on to work with the internationally-acclaimed Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and Jeff Henry, who lectures in the arts at York University.

She, however, had a special love for pan and developed an association with the Woodbrook Invaders Steel Orchestra. The band performed at the opening of her Little Carib Theatre in 1948 and was among the major beneficiaries of her promise then that every performance at the theatre would include pan.

The steelband movement recognised her patronage and sought to include Mc Burnie as a supporting act for the 1951 tour of France by the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (Taspo). But the plan never quite materialised, leaving her and Sonny Roach behind, as the band left Martinique for Bordeaux in July of that year.

She however continued her overt support of the instrument, despite criticisms levelled against her by influential patrons of the Little Carib Theatre.

Canon Farquahar noted that "Undeterred by such criticism, she offered the steelband a sanctuary by her patronage and encouragement.

Nor was her love for indigenous music limited to pan.

In 1950, even before the Taspo promise, Mc Burnie presented a work called Quim Bamba at Dimanche Gras which, that year, took the form of a Fancy Dress Ball.

The soundtrack for the piece was provided by a group she had brought in specially from the Caura Valley. It was the first time that most of the city folk would hear a music called Parang. Thanks to Mc Burnie, it would not be their last such experience.

In the following year, she also rekindled one of the more sensitive aspects of Carnival history, with her interpretation of the Cannes Brulee (camboulay) on that Carnival Sunday night. The ritual, set to dance by Mc Burnie, had been the source of much discomfort to the ruling classes during the infancy of the festival and caused bloody riots between police and the townspeople.

Express: March 31, 2000

Created on ... April 16, 2000