Virginia Alexander, SLMM, MBE (1948-2008)
Julienne Virginia Alexander, SLMM, MBE
Born: 6th January, 1948
Died: 26th June, 2008
Julienne Virginia Alexander
SLMM, MBE, 1948-2008
Long before she became the popular and revered “Auntie Virgie,” Virgie Alexander was a student of St. Joseph’s Convent and a member of the square dancing group. The teenage square-dancer perhaps had no idea at the time that she would make a great contribution to the art form of dance and to the lives of many talented young St. Lucians.
Julienne Virginia Alexander was born 7th January 1948 in the village of Laborie to parents Victor and Coretta Alexander.
In 1966, she participated in dance classes led by an American Peace Corps volunteer. It was during that workshop that Mrs.Patricia Charles discerned Virgie’s potential and invited her to join the new Creative and Performing Arts Society (CPAS). The Society dedicated itself to training and performance in the arts, and encompassed drama, dance, and a choral group.
In the early seventies, she was able to attend a number of summer workshops in Trinidad and worked with some of the leading Caribbean choreographers of the day, like Rex Nettleford, Astor Johnson and Terrance Mohammed. At one of her first workshops, she was asked to give a solo performance at the end-of-workshop production. It was a significant achievement for a beginner.
Virgie worked with both the CPAS and the now-legendary Arts Guild under the direction of Roderick Walcott. She collaborated with both Walcott and composer Charles Cadet on the productions of The Banjo Man (1969, 1972) and Chanson Marianne (1974.)
In 1969, she was part of the St. Lucian contingent in Grenada for Expo ’69. Other notable St. Lucian artistes on that tour were Ronald ‘Boo’ Hinkson, Sesenne Descartes (making her first regional appearance), Florita Marquis, George Odium and the cast of Derek Walcott’s Sea at Dauphin.
She also worked with Derek Walcott and his Trinidad Theatre Workshop whenever they toured St. Lucia.
After her years with the CPAS; Virgie, Undine George and others formed their own Phoenix Dancers, an adult dance troupe. As she came to do more choreography, and to work with children, the desire grew in her to open dance to more children, across all social barriers. This led to the formation in 1972 of the Les Enfants junior dance troupe, certainly recognized as her enduring lifetime achievement. They began their work in the Ave Maria School and the Castries Parish Centre, with children aged six to twelve years of age, at no cost. This was much appreciated by parents and members of the public. Excellence and high standards were always a mark of her group. Les Enfants eventually developed a strong following. Many of the well-known St. Lucian dancers today emerged from that group, persons like Anthony ‘Cocky’ JnBaptiste, Christine Springer-Samuel, Tania Isaac, Micole Aubertin, Jenna Jolie, the late Azizi Alexander and many others.
For Virgie, the Les Enfants dancers became her life’s work. They became a real family with their beloved “Auntie Virgie” as a kind of ‘surrogate Mom.”
Even as she worked with young people, she continued her own dancing with the Petite Ste Lucie Dance Troupe led by Carlton Ishmael and Michael Francis in the mid-seventies.
In 1976, Virgie was able to study with the Martha Graham Dance Group in the United States. She had never had formal training in dance, but was able to hold her own among those professionals.
From the mid-eighties, she joined the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Culture, and continued with the Ministry when the Department became the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF.) There she carved a niche for herself, working on summer workshops, Independence youth rally celebrations and all major Government activities needing art and culture input. She was responsible for the promotion of the Flower Festival celebrations at schools, especially the La Marguerite Festival. Her name was synonymous with those of Frank Norville, Joyce Auguste, Barbara Duboulay, Jacques Compton and many others noted for their work in the Government’s Cultural initiatives for many years.
She also became well-known for her involvement in Carnival celebrations, working especially with the Carnival Queen contestants, even up to most recent times.
Her work has been recognized. She has received awards from the M&C Fine Arts Committee (1984), the St. Lucia Medal of Merit Gold, (1990), the Outstanding Woman Award for her contribution to national development in the field of Arts and Culture (1989). She received the MBE in 2004, and traveled to Buckingham Palace to receive the award.
In the midst of all her work in St. Lucian arts and culture Virgie raised her three children, Che, Hewan and Shane Odium. She was a loving mother who worked hard to help her children to achieve their educational and career goals. To her children, she will always be remembered for her sense of humour, her punctuality, her positivity, her love of life, dance, culture, music, and bright colours. She loved brightness and vibrancy which was reflected in the way she dressed and the way she engaged with friends, family and colleagues. Virgie inherited her love of dance from her mother Caretta and her sense of punctuality and flair for organization from her father Victor. She had a very strong bond with her sisters Leona and Del and her “Auntie Byie” who had looked after her as a little girl. Family life was very much intertwined with her vocation as a dancer. Her children and her parents would attend many of her shows and dance rehearsals and her home was the centre of costume-making for her various dance productions. To Virgie her vocation as a dancer and artiste was never separate from. other aspects of her life.
Virgie embraced her role as a doting grandmother to K ylah, Dominic and Mia. In the latter years of her life, Virgie gave more attention to her spiritual life and became more involved with the church and its activities. Even there, her artistic skills-were put to use in various kinds of church-oriented productions. She was an active member of the Sacred Heart Confraternity and the Cursillo Movement. She enjoyed participating in the religious life of the Church through prayer meetings, attending retreats and vigils through which she made many new friends.
Virgie was a constant presence on the arts and cultural scene of St. Lucia. She was colourful, calm and hard-working and was an inspiration to all dancers, musicians, dramatists and artistes in St. Lucia. Her presence at La Rose and La Maguerite flower festivals, Assou Square, Festival of Lights, Independence Youth Rally, Queen Show, dance productions and other cultural events will be greatly missed by all those who loved her and who love the Arts.
(Adapted from an article by Natalie Preville, Home Companion (August/October 2002)
Virginia Alexander, SLMM, MBE passes on
– Message from Minister for Culture
The Ministry of Education and Culture, the Cultural Development Foundation and the wider cultural community mourn the loss of Virginia “Virgie” Alexander SLMM MBE. a true Saint Lucian Cultural Giant.
Auntie Virgie as she was affectionately known was renowned for her role as pioneer and leader of the dance movement in Saint Lucia .she trained and guided the cream of the country’s dance talent over the last four decades. This was anchored by her formation and development of her now legendary dance troupe- the Les Enfants Dancers.
Equally important was Virgie’s role a lead producer of the National Youth Rallies which have now became the highlights of independence celebrations. She ensured that the rallies showed constant improvement with evidence of her great love for traditional rhythms and movements as well as her modern choreography.
Aunty Virgie also made a tremendous contribution to the promotion of arts and culture in the school system. She was particularly proud of the Annual La Marguerite Presentation by Primary schools which last year saw a record 30 schools participating all under her direction.
Her passing is particularly difficult at this time to me as the CDF prepares to stage the carnival Queen Show. Aunty Virgie served as producer and artistic director of the Queen Show for the last twelve years and was deeply involved in the planning of this year’s event when she fell ill in April.
As a person, Virgie was fun loving, affable and a friend of many particularly within the local and regional artistic community. She will be remembered for being an integral part of many Saint Lucian cultural contingents that represented us at regional and international events including Carifesta and the Francophone Festival.
Aunty Virgie received many National and regional awards including the MBE in 2004. the Ministry of Culture through the CDF has appointed a committee to plan the funeral service and tribute to Virgina Alexander
Aunty Virgie was truly a guardian of Art and Culture in Saint Lucia. We thank God for her life and service to our nation.
Referring to Greek Democracy during a famous funeral oration, Pericles said that “we are rather a pattern to others than imitators.” That is how I shall always remember Virgie – for her artistic and aesthetic contributions to the enhancement of Saint Lucian society will be recalled in years to come, not least because of the legacy which she has left, and which is being continued by Christine Samuel, a former pupil and former member of Les Enfants, and the present members of Les Enfants Dancers.
In one of the three African religious survivals in the Caribbean, the Deity of Death is portrayed as being unquenchably voracious, and he always arrives unexpectedly and uninvited. He is a superb dancer, but, unlike all the other deities who are themselves excellent dancers, his dancing is outrageously and disgustingly vulgar. I was puzzled by that, but, upon investigation into the meaning of that dancing, I was informed that Death respects no one. Young and old, rich and poor, lowly and mighty, we all will be his victim.
For twelve years Virgie had been a member of my staff when I was the Director of Culture with the Government of Saint Lucia. When I had been very seriously ill for fifteen months, and more, and unable to do a single thing for myself, Virgie and Mrs. Theresa Hall and another very close friend of the family, Marilyn, would prepare certain nourishing dishes for me. Virgie was the person who gave me a bath when I was completely useless during that long illness.
Whatever she undertook, whatever task she had been assigned, she strove, always, for superlative excellence. Class was what she was after. There is a saying which I consider something of an injunction, in Latin, when speaking of one who has passed away: “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.” Which translates, “about the dead say nothing but the good”.
Former Director of Culture, Saint Lucia
Perhaps my greatest lesson from ‘Auntie Virgie’ was vision. More than dance classes and performances, it was permission to view the world a little differently. You do not get many chances to brush up against that absolute conviction, passion, commitment to the imagination of something more. Those years, with her, ‘the girls’ and tony, were an unforgettable, unimaginable season. Of learning, growing, friendships and even friction. Thank you Virgie for my friends, my experiences, your support. Like many of us ‘enfants’, I learned to say ‘dancer’ without regret, without self-consciousness and with an understanding of purpose that does not always need approval. I do not know the person I would have become if I had not found this group, but because of it, I am so much the person I could not even have imagined then. And I cherish it. My gift from you has been vision, to make this life of art, of movement. We look around and we remember, all of us, that we are not simply important as dancers, makers, shapers of culture. We are essential and we are necessary. As you have been. A little bit of rebel never hurts.
Thank you. Love always.
Tania Isaac- Les Enfants member from 87- 91
Virgie was gifted with the ability to design choreography, rooted in traditional St. Lucian culture, while remaining always sensitive to the context of a story and its music.
Her work in the outstanding prologue to Roderick Walcott’s “The Banjo Man” and the equal beauty of the folk ballet devised for his “Chanson Marianne” epitomize that very special talent.
I was privileged, in the role of music composer, to have been associated with Virgie in these and in several other productions. I never ceased to be astounded at her ability to mould raw talent into competent interpreters of a particular dance theme.
We grew out of the immediate post-colonial era when our vision centred on a selfless devotion to the cause of country, and not on a self-seeking pursuit of personal kudos and financial reward. It is within this context that Virgie’s legacy must be viewed.
Sadly yet another light from a Golden Age” Camelot” era of St. Lucian artistic achievement is now extinguished.
Charles Cadet SLC
Auntie Virgie was and will remain a great mentor to the “Les Enfants Dancers.” For over twenty -five years, she embraced and moulded this dance company into an art form that was greatly admired. From tiny tots to adulthood, Auntie Virgie took us through a journey of the dance theatrical world. Our productions were many as we were greatly involved with several cultural exchange programs at home and throughout the Caribbean – Creations, Movements, Carifesta just to name a few. She took simple notions and created magic as the stage lit up with her dance works. Through the movements of our bodies, we expressed our various emotions in dance, depicting our struggles and achievements. Auntie Virgie always gave us “the pride and dignity” speech before a performance, expressing words towards the effect of ‘why are you just sitting there, warm up your muscles, you have to learn to present and prepare yourselves, that is how you will make it to Broadway!’ I became a better and stronger dancer because of her constant encouragement.
With the likes of Athanasius Laborde and Lapo Kabwit, Frank Norville and the Lucians, Roland Francois, Anthony, “Cocky” Jn. Baptiste and Christine Samuel, and The Les Enfants dancers (Sammy, Nikita, Keisha, La Toya, Shelly, Tania, Jenna, Melissa, Azizi, Amin, Trevor, Jeanique, Shakeena, Ursel, Gemyma, Erica, Kim, Vanya and many more), the Les Enfants Dance Troupe went through a series of transitions that helped nurture a family bond which is inseparable. Together, we fought our battles and embraced our achievements and became little ambassadors of the Helen of the West Indies. No doubt Auntie Virgie was the pillar of our lives, the Les Enfants Dancers. As we go on with our separate lives, her passion for the group will always remain imprinted in our hearts. Today she is forming a new company with the angels including Azizi, Burt, Uncle George and Aunty Marcia.
I Love You Auntie Virgie.
Michelle “Pepa” Joseph
Les Enfants Member, 1987
Always colourfully attired, yet quiet-spoken and demure in demeanor; Caring, concerned but dedicated to discipline; backstage, a behind-the scenes Trojan with extra-ordinary on stage results.
CPAS, Arts Guild, Les Enfants, Arts Festivals, CDF, her life and work.
Virgie, we thank you and we will remember!