By Walter Rutledge
Clive Thompson literally began performing before he worn his first pair of long pants.
The Thompson family lived in the Kencot section of Kingston in the British West Indies colony of Jamaica. A residential working class neighbor, Kencot consisted of single story wood frame homes with covered front porches and backyards. It was an ideal place to raise children; a place where neighbors called you by your first name and family was the cornerstone.
Clive’s sister Norma recalls, “The Jamaica of my childhood was peaceful and serene. We grew up where children were expected to be mannerly and respectful to all adults. Education was compulsory and good grades a must. We lived in a residential neighborhood called Kencot, I remember many mango trees. We played outside all day until we were called in for dinner.”
This Jamaica was a far cry from the commercial tourist destination we know today. It was the home of British espionage novelist Ian Fleming whose most famous character James Bond also worked in exotic locations. This Jamaica was an island of proud, hardworking people who were just a little more than a decade from sovereignty.
One of the local traditions was at birthday parties the young guests would entertain each other. A seven-year-old Clive and five-year old Norma made their “debut” with a song and dance routine. Four years later at a party the host approached their mother Casita; he was interested in her charismatic children performing in the nightclub he managed. That was unacceptable, instead he offered the children the opportunity to perform at the Carib Theatre’s Children’s Corner Club.
The performances took place on Saturday mornings and would include movie serials, a magician and a live show with youth performers, before the feature film. In his first performance an eleven-year old Clive sang. “I remember almost forgetting the words as I looked down proudly at my brand new knickers, my first pair of three-quarter pants!” exclaimed Thompson.
Clive and Norma became weekend regulars at the Children’s Corner Club. “We saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and decided we would be just like them. We performed several genres of dance we never studied and couldn’t name,” reminisced Norma. Under the watchful eye of their mother Clive and Norma gained invaluable stage experience while having fun and enjoying their popularity.
The duo was not paid in cash, instead they could to bring friends to the theater for free. Every Saturday they would arrive with an enthusiastic entourage. “Every Saturday morning there’d be a dozen friends waiting for us and we marched like Pied Pipers up the street,” Clive gleefully recalls.
These activities were all under the watchful eye of their mother. A seamstress and clothing designer, who worked from the home; Casita Thompson not only monitored her children, but also designed their costumes. The experience was more than just a weekend activities; this investment in their children’s dreams helped build a confidence and self-worth. The strong family support also instilled an indomitable spirit in Clive and Norma that would follow them for a lifetime.
The Children’s Corner Club was just the beginning. Clive and Norma performed in local talent shows, and expanded their “repertoire” to included acting and pantomime. They gave performances at school, and by charging a modest admission fee they earned pocket-money. A chance encounter would reshape Clive’s life forever.
“While I was still in school, Katherine Dunham was performing on the island, and I passed the theater and saw many people outside. After intermission, I slipped in with the crowd and saw her Rite of Passage, and it completely blew my mind. It was theater; it was dance; it was magic, it was fantasy. It was real for me.”
The performance not only introduced Clive to the legendary Katherine Dunham Dance Company, but he also met Ivy Baxter, a local dance teacher. Dubbed by National Theater Company of Jamaica founder Rex Nettleford as Jamaica’s Mother of Modern Dance, Baxter immediately offered the tall lanky teenager the opportunity to take class at her studio. Males were in short supply and when Clive and a friend arrived at the studio she subtly inducted them. “Ivy was very clever and put us playing drums, and before you know it, we’re on the floor dancing,” chuckled Thompson.
Clive soon met Madame May Soohih, a Chinese woman who had married a Russian ballet dancer and teacher. She wisely offered him a scholarship to their studio. Teachers were very protective/possessive of their students and this resulted in some healthy rivalry that only worked to Clive’s advantage. Thompson was able to build his dance acumen; pulling the best from studying with both teachers and dancing in their companies.
After high school Clive began working as a teller at a Government Savings Bank. For the kinesthetically driven Thompson working behind a teller’s cage was a form of imprisonment. This feeling quickly surfaced in his work ethic. “I was always late getting there and always the first the leave,” Thompson confused. When the opportunity to represent Jamaica in festivals in Cuba and Trinidad arose Clive literally jumped at the opportunity. Just before embarking on this new dance adventure Clive saw the Martha Graham film A Dancer’s World. “I had four weeks of vacation coming to me, and I decided to see as much of the States as my money would allow. I was determined to see this lady (Graham) when I hit New York”.
Next: New York City and Martha Graham