“If the government is sensitive, they would realise that as Trinidad is slowly dying, there is a great opportunity to save it, via Carifesta, God knows.”
So stated Beryl McBurnie in a letter to an unnamed woman friend she called Mehzwee in November 1991 according to a recently published biography on the famed dancer written by Judy Raymond.
McBurnie wrote the letter to Mehzwee because she has been asked to design an opening ceremony for Carifesta V which was held in T&T in August 1992.
These words written by McBurnie more than 27 years ago, however, are still applicable today as T&T, which recorded 516 murders last year, prepares to host Carifesta XIV in seven months time.
“Art and culture are the expressions of a culture, it’s through art and culture that we can see the spirit, whether it is alive and meaningful or dead,” McBurnie is quoted in the biography as saying during a television interview during the Carifesta held in Barbados in 1981.
The McBurnie biography is part of the Caribbean Biography Series from the University of the West Indies Press which “celebrates and memorialises the architects of Caribbean culture.”
“The series aims to introduce general readers to those individuals who have made sterling contributions to the region in their chosen field—literature, the arts, politics, sports—and are the shapers and bearers of Caribbean identity,” according to its description.
The series, launched with a biography on Earl Lovelace, includes titles on Derek Walcott and Marcus Garvey.
The McBurnie biography, the latest in the series, was written by Raymond, Editor in Chief at the T&T Newsday newspaper.
The cover photo for the biography, taken by Carl Van Vechten, has McBurnie in an image reminiscent of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
It was taken in the 1940s when McBurnie was performing in New York under the stage name Belle Rosette (Beautiful Little Rose).
McBurnie’s dancing can be witnessed “thanks to two surviving scraps of film footage from her glory days in New York,” the biography states.
They are the only visual record of her professional work in New York.
According to the biography, those two videos highlighted that McBurnie, one of this country’s most famed dancers, never wined and discouraged her dancers from doing so also.
“These ‘soundies’ illustrate perfectly McBurnie’s dancers’ later comments on her style: she never wined, and she disapproved of her dancers doing so. Her dancing was proper, and no doubt based on traditional steps, with no suggestive or erotically inclined moves,” it stated.
“In the films, she dances with tremendous confidence and an unfaltering, genuine-looking smile, and certainly possesses charisma: she is the dancer to whom one’s eyes are drawn, whatever the other two are doing, though her performance is simple, brisk and certainly not technically spectacular. Nor does she make the slightest attempt to portray a seductive ‘island girl’,” it stated.
McBurnie was born in Trinidad and went to New York to study dance and drama. As straightforward as that sounds, according to the biography, there are varying versions of these two events.
“Beryl was born on 2 November 1913, according to her birth certificate. The programme from her funeral says she was born in 1912; other sources, even close friends of hers, give dates ranging from 1907 to 1917.
“McBurnie never included her date of birth in documents such as her curriculum vitae. It is typical of her that it is hard to pin down even the year she was born; whether telling the story of her life or building a theatre in her mother’s back yard without planning permission, normal rules did not seem to apply to Beryl McBurnie,” the biography stated.
There are also conflicting versions of how McBurnie arrived in New York.
“McBurnie had left Trinidad for the United States in 1938. There are varying accounts—from McBurnie herself—of how she came to study dance in New York, and for how long.
Whatever the real motive of her move to New York, McBurnie’s impact on Broadway is up for debate.
Despite this success, McBurnie turned her back on the “bright lights” to return to Trinidad.
On November 25, 1948, McBurnie had a grand opening of Little Carib Theatre at Number 95 Roberts Street, Woodbrook which had originally been her family’s home.
“Thus from early on, the Little Carib was more than just a performance space for dance: it was a centre for all sorts of artistic activity, discussion and research, and McBurnie and others used it to foster and encourage other arts and interest in the arts,” the biography stated.
The theatre also housed Derek Walcott’s Theatre Workshop and became a crucible for the performing arts.
McBurnie was awarded the Order of the British empire in 1959; two national awards from T&T—the Humming Bird Gold Medal in 1969 and the country’s highest award, the Trinity Cross, in 1989; and an honorary doctorate from the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in 1976.
The biography takes you on a dance with McBurnie through her interesting life and shows her crossing paths with several key players in this country’s history, including our first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
“McBurnie found many friends, allies and helpers along the way who shared her vision. There were moments of despair, but she retained the endless optimism that sustained her for decades. Her achievements were recognised.
“She was part of a generation of strong women who overcame the prejudices of their time to stamp their mark on Caribbean history, and her willpower and quirky personality were celebrated and loved. As Eric Williams said, she drank from her own glass. Beryl McBurnie lived the life she chose,” the biography stated.
In the biography, McBurnie’s protégée, friend, and collaborator Felipe Noguera says he believes “the story of McBurnie’s life should be taught in schools and children should do projects on her life and work for their exams.”
If this comes to fruition then this well-researched biography will serve as a valuable learning tool.