John Theophilus Clarke 1932-2017

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  • John Clarke with the Bermuda Fiery Limbo Dancers (Photograph supplied)

    John Clarke with the Bermuda Fiery Limbo Dancers (Photograph supplied)

  • John Clarke in April 1957 (Photograph from The Recorder)

    John Clarke in April 1957 (Photograph from The Recorder)

  • John Clarke with his wife of 25 years, Ingrid Clarke (Photograph supplied)

    John Clarke with his wife of 25 years, Ingrid Clarke (Photograph supplied)

  • John Clarke with the Montgomery Dancers, who toured Spain and Italy (Photograph supplied)

    John Clarke with the Montgomery Dancers, who toured Spain and Italy (Photograph supplied)

John Theophilus Clarke, a ground-breaking dancer on the local and international stage, has died at the age of 85.

Mr Clarke challenged racial barriers during a time of open discrimination and his performances included touring with Les Ballets Negres, Europe’s first all-black dance troupe.

He founded his own company in Europe, The Montgomery Dancers, later establishing a dance school back in Bermuda — as well as working in the family business, Wrights Candy Shop, a popular St George’s store.

Fellow performer Sandra Butterfield, a contemporary of Mr Clarke’s along with her husband Bryan, recalled him as “creative, brilliant, charming, funny, stubborn, generous, gentle”.

Calling him “an icon for sure”, Ms Butterfield said there could be “no duplication” of her longtime friend.

Mr Clarke was born in Britain to Ellen Trew Wright from Bermuda and John Theophilus Clarke Sr from Georgetown, Guyana. He grew up in the Wright family homestead of Hillcrest in Old Maid’s Lane, St George’s.

His introduction to dance came early, though Gregory Gordon, an American dance instructor who coached many local performers.

Mr Gordon’s production of The Boat in the Bottle afforded Mr Clarke his first taste of the stage.

Law ran in the family, and in 1949, at the age of 15, he was sent to London to study at University Tutorial College.

But he left a year later to pursue dance, studying modern ballet and acrobatics. Health may have factored in that decision: according to his daughter, Belinda Clarke, Mr Clarke had been hit by chronic bronchitis.

“A doctor said he would benefit from physical activity, and dancing was that,” Ms Clarke said.

She described her father as “a showman in everything he did — the way he walked and presented himself and told stories”.

In the troupe Les Ballet Negres, Mr Clarke was pushed to his physical limit in performances that enthralled postwar audiences.

A London reviewer said the group danced with “every fibre of the body and every flicker and flame of the spirit”. The company finished in 1953.

Mr Clarke joined the ranks of Katherine Dunham’s company, performing in Rome, Naples and Turin. Dunham was a pioneer in black theatrical dance and was also known for her social activism.

He performed under the direction of innovative French ballet director Ronald Petitt, as well as Burt Stimmel, and shared the spotlight with Josephine Baker — a dancer who had distinguished herself as the world’s first globally famed black entertainer.

Later, Mr Clarke assembled The Montgomery Dancers ballet troupe. In 1955, he briefly married Bianca Cavallini, a Swedish dancer and singer who performed alongside him.

He spent the last five years of his dance career overseas in Milan, Italy, before returning to Bermuda in April 1957. He performed in the leading houses in London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Germany, Scandinavia and Holland operating under the stage name of John Montgomery.

Locally, he ran his own dance school in the Arcadia Block, and continued to perform, while Wright’s Candy Shop was “part of everyone’s experience, coming home from school and getting a pineapple slush”, his daughter said. “John performed in the Holiday Island Review in many of Bermuda’s hotels with Kenny Bean,” Ms Clarke added.

“He also danced with Dee Dee Simmons, Juliette Bean and Barbara Tatem in the Fiery Limbo Dancers. He added to Bermuda a rich and exciting style of dance that entertained locals and tourists in the nightclub and hotel venues.”

According to family lore, Mr Clarke confronted segregation at local venues in the 1960s, when black entertainers were told to enter hotels by the back door.

“One night, John told his company they were going in the front door — and they did,” Ms Clarke said. “No one said a word. That was typical of John to buck the status quo, particularly where racial inequity was concerned.”

Mr Clarke also crossed the island’s racial divide in his personal life, marrying a white woman, Ingrid Clarke, in 1961. They were together for 25 years.

“Black entertainers held Bermuda together in the 1960s — they worked hard over long hours, they got paid less, and they were told to use the back door,” his daughter said.

“They persevered because they loved what they did.”

Fittingly, Mr Clarke ran into his future wife on the back stairs at the Castle Harbour Hotel while “late as usual”, Ms Clarke said — and impulsively asked her out. They married within a year.

Mourning her father with siblings Sita Ingram, Bianca Clarke, Joshua Mayho, Guisti Clarke, Maha Clarke and Veronica Clarke, Ms Clarke called him “incredibly creative”.

“He always wanted us to grab life and give it a good shake, in whatever we did — it didn’t matter that we were girls. He pushed us beyond our limits, to be the very best.”

Along with the Butterfields, contemporaries of Mr Clarke included Gene and Pinky Steede, Kenny and Kathy Bean, Herbert Smith, Vernon “Ghandi” Burgess, Stan Seymour, Sydney Bean and Lance Hayward.

Popular clubs outside the hotel circuit were the Forty Thieves Club where Mr Clarke’s close friend Winston “Super” Lottimore was the bouncer, and the Clayhouse Inn.

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Published Sep 6, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 6, 2017 at 11:47 am)

John Theophilus Clarke 1932-2017

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