Obituary: Beryl McBurnie

By Bourne, Stephen | The Independent (London, England), July 8, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Beryl McBurnie

Bourne, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)

BERYL MCBURNIE, the "Carmen Miranda of the Caribbean", established the Little Carib Theatre, and dedicated her life to the promotion of the culture and arts of Trinidad and Tobago. Professor Rex Nettleford, Vice- Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, says:

Sixty or fifty years ago Caribbean history, literature, drama and dance were at best a Caribbean reflection of the culture of the metropoles. But people like Beryl McBurnie started to flesh out the Caribbean reality of political and cultural independence.

Born in Trinidad in 1915, Beryl McBurnie trained at the Mausica Teachers' College in Trinidad. She became interested in folk-dance while touring the country with Trinidad's leading folklorist, Andrew Carr. In 1938, she went to Columbia University in New York to study dance and her influences at this time included the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. It was during this period that McBurnie became acquainted with the African-American choreographer Katharine Dunham and taught some of the dances of Trinidad at the studio of the New Dance Group.

On a brief return to Trinidad in 1940, McBurnie presented a sell- out programme of dance called A Trip Through the Tropics at the Empire Theatre, Port of Spain. In this innovative and ambitious show, McBurnie combined Caribbean and Brazilian dances with impressions of New York and modern dances, performed to the music of such composers as Wagner, Beethoven and Bach.

Returning to New York in 1941, where she remained until 1945, McBurnie performed under the stage name of La Belle Rosette while continuing 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 Carmen Miranda in the hit Broadway musical revue Sons o' Fun at the Winter Garden Theatre. The following year, she made a rare film appearance with the Trinidadian vocalist Sam Manning in Quarry Road.

On her return to Trinidad in 1945, McBurnie became dance instructor with the government's Education Department. In 1948 she realised her ambition to establish a permanent folk-dance company and theatre in Trinidad when she presented her pre-carnival show Bele at her newly opened Little Carib Theatre in Woodbrook, Port of Spain. Paul Robeson laid the cornerstone of the building during a tour of the Caribbean in 1948.

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