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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 begins when I was about 3 or 4 years old. My mother sent me to dance classes to rehabilitate my extreme pigeon feet and I have been dancing ever since. It is a language for me as natural as breath.
My art chose me. I was not the instigator of the relationship. But every day I choose to affirm my soul through my connection with Dance. It really is a 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 that I use my choreography to grapple with and process my own ideas about life and living. My favorite form to choreograph has always been contemporary dance because it can be almost anything you do.
YE: What kind 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: Currently 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 Theater Xaymaca and a number of companies in the UK.
YE: Which artists/dancers have influenced you and how?
Neila: I owe so much to so many. My fundamental influences were my first dance teachers, Monika Lawrence, Carol Murdock (now deceased) and Patsy Ricketts, all of whom nurtured my passion and enthusiasm for dance at a very young age without being patronizing.
I was treated like a young artist in the making and learned so much professionalism and consideration for my art from these teachers. Patsy, in particular, gave me such great examples of how to incorporate a presentation. I carry that with me to this day. I was also influenced by Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson, now Director of the School of Dance. Through her example I began to understand the fundamental importance of the educational potential of the art of Dance.
My years at UWI saw me work 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 a deep connection through dance to the spiritual and ancestral; Joe, with his constantly 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 was also 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. Furthermore, Professor Nettleford’s bilingual intellect (artistic and verbal) helped me 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 on the Cuban-modern technique, also played an important role in the way I now understand the connection of his body to rhythm and space. I have also been blessed to have contemporaries such as Chris Walker, Shelley-Ann Maxwell, Marlon Simms, Michael Holgate and Oniel Pryce, who, because of their willingness to find a voice through choreography and performance, strengthen my own resolve, every day.
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 plan to take up horse riding and karate.
YE: What inspires you to stay motivated when things get tough?
Neila: The dream that was placed in my soul. When things get tough, I have to turn around and remember that dream and the sense of justice that the dream brings.
YE: Who are some dance companies you admire?
Neila: I have always enjoyed specific pieces from each of our major Jamaican dance companies – newer and older works. As for Jamaican dancers, some of the ones that really touched 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 are the best and worst parts of being a dancer?
Neila: Dance can fill you with such joy. When you put in the time and effort in rehearsals and classes, more often than not your emotional reward is just as fulfilling. Knowing that you can effectively communicate ideas big and small without words and beyond, touching the heart of another 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 out, get hurt, need to heal. For some, it will never be the way it was before injury and so the dancer must be able to wrap their mind around this reality and continue to live. It sounds easy, but it is 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 swing and will create 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 healthy way. We have a lot of choreographers who enjoy the challenges of expressing their opinions through bodies, but I find that most try to express in the same way. I don’t see real opportunities taken often enough (I’m guilty of that too). I feel like we’re holding back and trying to maintain some sort of status quo. There is still no forum for dialogue and cooperation at its deepest level.
YE: If you could do anything you want, what would it be?
Neila: I’m doing it now. The only thing I would increase is the international travel and the earnings.
YE: How did you develop your skill?
Neila: I formally studied dance and performance-making in Jamaica and in the UK, at Edna Manley College and at the University of Surrey (MA Physical Theatre). However, every day I develop my skill, because every day I actively learn more about my craft.
YE: Do you dance professionally? ie Paid to dance? do you want
Neila: I dance professionally, I choreograph professionally, I lecture professionally.
YE: What goes through your head when you perform?
Neila: Difficult question. Sometimes there is an internal story, images I remember that help me perform the movements with interpretive sensitivity. Sometimes there are calculations. Sometimes I listen to music cues, watch movement cues. Sometimes I actively connect with an audience member or someone else on stage. Sometimes there’s a costume malfunction or some other mistake and I’m many steps ahead in my mind, fixing it. Sometimes my body’s happiness is on autopilot. And all of this can happen in 30 seconds or less of a dance.
YE: What makes you want to get up in the morning?
Neila: God’s gift of life. Recognizing that the first breath in the morning means I have something to do. I haven’t finished yet.
YE: Final thoughts?
Neila: If there’s a song in your heart, please sing it…. Dance, please do it down the street… no matter how many people think you’re weird. We all come here with our talents and society tells us we have to hide them because they make us too difficult to fit in with everyone else. I say do what your heart tells you to do and then everyone else will want to match you. That’s why you were created in the first place.
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