A classically trained dancer who has studied law was surely an outlier decades ago. Not because dancers were incapable of balancing the demands of the performance art along with their studies, and certainly, it was not owed to any lack of – or the level of – intellect, says Marisa Benain, the founder and artistic director of Plié for the Arts.
“There’s the misconception that if you dance you are not bright, though I don’t even know if it is a thing now,” she told Flair, “because a lot of the greatest dancers that have come through our company, and many others, are actuarial scientists, professors, teachers and lecturers; brilliant people.”
She added, “It’s just that it has been entrenched in our minds that if a person chooses dance as a career, he or she is going to starve, so much [so] that it is a real fear.”
However, Benain never allowed fear to stop her from living the life she most desired. She fell in love with the art of dance as a child and auditioned for the groundbreaking performing arts troupe, Cathi Levy’s Little People and Teen Players Club, after experiencing what it was like sitting in the audience watching other children her age on the stage of the historic Ward Theatre.
“It was about 100 children on the stage, and when I heard the applause for them, I said to myself, ‘I should be on this stage’, because I believed it was where I truly belonged. Funnily enough, I don’t think I got in on the first try, but eventually, I did,” Benain recalled.
The meticulous dance and voice training were a game changer for her, and the way she spoke of Levy was proof that she had made an immeasurable impact on the young Benain, who is now breaking ground with Plié for the Arts.
She shared, “I still believe she is one of the best artistic directors to come out this region, and who I don’t think we acknowledge enough. We had shows for long periods, up to eight weeks, with children from across the island coming to Kingston for our performances. We also toured the Cayman Islands, Miami and New York, so it was destiny that I would continue on that path through high school, and even when I went away to further my studies at Hunter College. Then, when I finished there and returned home to Jamaica, I joined the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC).”
Being the overachiever she is, her life achievements did not stop at being the star dancer on a show or completing her bachelor’s. Benain explained that it means a great deal to “set the bar high and keep it there,” and as such, she relocated once more to do her master’s degree, this time in the UK. When she came back to Jamaica, she started a PhD programme, then eventually transferred to law. In aiming for what her heart desired, dance was always at the centre, playing an integral part in her development. Ask anyone, she says. Even when she was preparing for examinations, she never missed a class or rehearsal. “I actually thought if I didn’t go to dancing, I would not excel in my other endeavours.”
She is poised as a professional dancer, attorney-at-law, founder, artistic director of her company, and in her work with the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. In looking for dancers, Benain, who at one stage of her university studies was juggling three jobs – one at Macy’s, another at Banana Republic on weekdays, and then at a restaurant on the weekend – said she was always capable of managing a hectic schedule and looks for dancers with that same drive and passion.
She’s been a key player in the industry, and has brought a number of talented creatives to the island to perform, including pioneers like Misty Copeland, Desmond Richardson, New York’s popular company Parsons Dance, and the Cuban National Ballet Company. Still, she not only invites dancers to come and be part of her company’s international dance gala Amalgamation, she continues to receive requests from many dancers who are eager to participate in the cultural experience in its entirety. It is safe to call Benain a philanthropist; proceeds from the annual production have continued to provide scholarships for dancers to improve on their technique and craft overseas. There are plans to have international, award-winning dancer and actress Debbie Allen as a guest for the next Amalgamation and each year, Benain sets a goal of an equal or higher reach.
“We have dancers from the four corners of the earth. The last show we had dancers from Russia, Germany, Guyana, Australia and the US; and what I do, because I want Jamaicans on the show, they audition and they [are] some of the best dancers, some who have become part of the Plié collective. It is really beautiful. And I have observed that there has to be a shift in how dancers are treated. The younger ones are more assertive, and especially those in the dancehall – they are steps ahead in monetising their craft. Our modern contemporary dancers and the artistic directions need to face reality. Their talent is invaluable and deserves to be treated as such. The dancers in Plié don’t play; as soon as a gig pops up, they are going to ask, so how much we going to get paid?”
Plié for the Arts is five years old, and Benain has also celebrated her five-year milestone since being called to the Bar.
“My mom, Shirley Dyce, had me at a young age, and I think that’s the reason I was so serious in terms of anything I wanted to do or accomplish. She loved theatre, and when I was born, my grandfather was disappointed because she was to go to Edna Manley College. I feel I am living her dreams,” she said.
“I would be bored if I wasn’t doing a lot of things. It’s up to a person to decide what you will do with your hours. I am invested in dance, but law is also one of the best investments I made. People think once you do law, you [are] going in the courts downtown or Half-Way Tree, when lots of lawyers don’t even pass those places. It’s just that once you do law, you are always a student of law; and you are always learning, and you can apply it to any area of life,” Benain continued.