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Growing up, Juan-Pablo Alba Dennis knew his uncle Paul, a talented dancer based in the US, mainly through video recordings, the occasional meeting and stories from his mother Elizabeth-Anne, who encouraged Juan-Pablo to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. Today Juan-Pablo is pursuing a degree in dance through the Ailey School in New York and has choreographed pieces that have been staged locally. Growing up, Paul Dennis also had an uncle who was a dancer, and Paul was encouraged by his father to pursue the profession. He graduated from the Juilliard School, performed across the US and the world as part of companies and solo, and is now an assistant professor in the dance department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This chain of family influences as well as the non-family professional influences in his life has inspired Dennis’s first performance in T&T in almost three decades. The show Generations is a fundraiser for Juan-Pablo’s continued study at the Ailey School and is due to take place at the Little Carib Theatre on June 28.
Supported by earlier generations
“We came up with the idea of how we are supported by the generations that come before us, whether it’s the blood generations—my parents, my uncle—or artistic generations,” Paul Dennis said during an interview last week. “My whole career has been on the shoulders of generations of people, and I am providing my shoulder to my nephew for his career,” he added. Juan-Pablo will perform a piece he choreographed himself, but Generations is essentially a solo recital, one Paul Dennis had performed recently in Milan. It’s made up of four pieces that are each connected in some way to the development of Dennis’s career. He joined the New York-based José Limón Dance Co almost immediately after graduating from Juilliard and will be performing Limón’s Chaconne (1942).
Pearl Primus was a dancer/choreographer, born in Trinidad but raised in New York, “on whom my career hinged,” said Dennis. He will be performing Primus’s Hard Time Blues (1945). American choreographer Reggie Wilson has worked with Trinidadians and performed in T&T. Dennis will be performing his Seeline Oman (1992). “I wanted to have a piece that represented my heritage. And though this dance isn’t specifically Caribbean, I wanted something that spoke to the Afro-Caribbean heritage that I stand on,” said Dennis. He will also be performing Daniel Nagrin’s Spanish Dance (1948). Nagrin, like Dennis, started his solo career at 40. “I found something really connecting about that,” said Dennis. “The pieces in the concert [are] all about the generations that have influenced me and that have influenced Trinidad dancing, like Pearl Primus, and have continued to influence me, like Reggie Wilson,” he said.
Little Carib memories
The Little Carib Theatre has significance for Dennis. He performed there for the first time early in his career, in a 1982 production from Jeffrey Carter called Celebration. He was 17. The next year he won Teen Talent as part of a duet that tied with singer Wendell Constantine. Even though he had obvious talent, after A-Levels Dennis got a job at Republic Bank, where he worked for two years. His life was headed down a typical path until his father encouraged him to apply to Juilliard, a remarkable move in a culture where parents are more likely to discourage children from pursuing artistic careers. The last time Dennis performed in Trinidad was just before he left the prestigious dance school. He and some other Trinidadian graduates and students of the school put on Truly From the Heart at Queen’s Hall in 1987.
When he joined José Limón and fell into the rigours of touring, and the other Trinidadian dancers did the same with other companies, it became more difficult to organise another performance on the islands. The difficulty increased when he got married and had a daughter. Paul and Juan-Pablo didn’t have a chance to have a close relationship when the younger man was growing up—but lately they’re getting there, meeting whenever Paul is in New York. Juan-Pablo is looking forward to performing on the same stage as his uncle and having younger people exposed to Paul’s talent. “There are hundreds of people from Trinidad who have made it, who’ve done amazing things, especially in dance, and a lot of young dancers don’t know anything about these people,” said Juan-Pablo. “I hope it marks a kind of new commitment to dance in the dance community—this passing of the baton sort of thing,” he said of Generations.
Little Carib Theatre: 622-4644; paulanthonydennis.com