As we closed off the year 2011 over the weekend, it is with great pleasure that the T&T Guardian concludes its tribute to great black women in history with our very own Beryl McBurnie—dancer, choreographer and founder of T&T’s first theatre—The Little Carib Theatre. We do hope that you enjoyed some good reading over the past weeks with the series as you got familiar or more familiar in some cases, with some of the most powerful and influential women who ever set foot on this earth.
Born on November 2, 1915, Beryl McBurnie began dancing as a child, performing regularly in dances and plays at Tranquillity Girls’ School, Port-of-Spain. Also in her youth she performed Scottish reels, jigs and other British folk dances that the teacher instructed. Though she appreciated their beauty, she yearned for more. In her teens, she decided to focus on promoting the emotions of the folk, and which in some cases gave an insight into the history and the way of life of the ordinary people. McBurnie trained at the Mausica Teachers’ College and started her career teaching in Port-of-Spain. But with her first love always on her mind, she decided to pursue her dream career in folk-dance after touring the country with Trinidad’s leading folklorist, Andrew Carr. Many melodies and folk dances that would have been lost to Trinidad and Tobago were rescued by McBurnie and promoted in her dancing. In 1938, she enrolled at Columbia University in New York and studied dance with dance pioneer Martha Graham. She also worked with American modern dancer and choreographer Charles Weidman, African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham, and taught Trinidadian dance at the New Dance Group studio. In 1940, McBurnie enjoyed a brief return to Trinidad. She presented A Trip Through the Tropics at the Empire Theatre, Port-of-Spain. McBurnie combined Caribbean and Brazilian dances with interpretations of New York and modern dances, performed to the music of Wagner, Beethoven and Bach, to a packed audience. Her performances sold out.
She returned to New York in 1941 and stayed until 1945. In 1941, she danced and sang with Sam Manning and his ensemble, in the production of the only known calypso “soundies,” film clips made for film jukeboxes located in restaurants and bars. Performing under the stage name of La Belle Rosette, McBurnie was booked to perform at “coffee concerts” at the Museum of Modern Art by philanthropist Louise Crane, then a young theatrical agent. The poet Hilda Doolittle wrote a very positive review of her “coffee concert” showing. After her “coffee concert” performances, La Belle Rosette performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the 92nd Street alongside American dancers Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. While performing, McBurnie continued to teach at the studio of the New Dance Group where, in 1942, the Trinidadian dancer Pearl Primus was one of her students. In June 1942 McBurnie replaced Carmine Miranda in the hit Broadway musical revue Sons o’ Fun at the Winter Garden Theatre. The following year, she made a film appearance with the Trinidadian vocalist Sam Manning in Quarry Road.\
McBurnie left the United States in 1945 at the height of her popularity in New York to become a dance instructor with the Trinidad and Tobago government’s Education Department in 1945. In 1948 she established the first permanent folk-dance company and theatre in Trinidad. Her first show was Bele, pre-carnival 1948, at her newly opened Little Carib Theatre in Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain. Among the many highlights of her work from this period included Talking Drums; Carnival Bele, in which the j’ouvert ballet danced to a steelband; Sugar Ballet; Caribbean Cruise; and Parang. She is considered to be one of the fore-mothers of Parang music. By the 1960s, the work of the Little Carib Dance Company had been recognised and celebrated overseas, performing at such events as the Caribbean Festival of Arts in Puerto Rico in 1952, the Jamaica Tercentenary Celebrations in 1955 and the opening of the Federal Parliament of Toronto in April 1958. In fact, the celebration in Canada in 1958 would influence the way Caribbean culture was understood in Canada. Her performances in Canada helped pave the way for Canada’s Caribana festival in the 1960s. In 1965 the Little Carib building, no longer safe in Port-of-Spain, had to be closed down and was re-built in 3-years time. However the permanent dance troupe had disbanded and McBurnie instead focused her energies on teaching children. The Little Carib Theatre was fully refurbished mid-last year (2011) and has since staged stella plays by some of today’s greatest thespians.
In 1950 McBurnie was appointed the director of dance in the Education Department. The British Council sent her on a dance tour of England and Europe. In 1959 she was appointed OBE, and in 1969 she was presented with the Humming Bird Gold Medal of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1976 the University of the West Indies conferred on her the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws and in America in 1978 she was honoured along with Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus at the Twentieth Anniversary Gala of the Alvin Ailey Theatre. In 1989, McBurnie received the Trinity Cross, the highest national award in Trinidad and Tobago then, for Promotion of the Arts. She died on March 30, 2000.