Dancer, Rachel Oneika Phillips, moved to Grenada from Guyana, as a child. While she attended Westmoreland Junior School and later St Joseph’s Convent, she describes her mother’s decision to enrol her into the Grenada Dance Workshop as, “the tether and rooting that truly made Grenada home.”
Since those early days, Rachel has gone on to appear in the 50th anniversary tour of West Side Story, playing some of the world’s most prestigious theatres in the iconic lead role of ‘Anita’. She was also a contributing cast member with the Tony Award winning musical Fela! which documented the life of legendary Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, and most recently served as assistant choreographer and cast member in the new Broadway-bound musical, Amazing Grace.
Former Grenadian ambassadors Dessima Williams and Gillian Bristol have hailed Rachel as “the first Grenadian on Broadway” but it seems there is no limit to what she can achieve. When asked about her, seemingly, unusual combination of degrees – dance and business management – she responds that, for her, it’s not unusual at all.
“It’s called ‘show business’ so I decided to pursue both aspects,” she explains. “In my opinion it makes me a smarter, more aware, keener artist with an advantage when it comes to negotiations and contracts and understanding both sides of the table.”
On reflection how do you view the reaction to your decision to become a dancer? What would you say to a young people who may be dealing with other people’s doubts about their career choice today?
To be honest I was somewhat oblivious or cut off from “the reaction”, good or bad, outside of my parents. They were the only ones I needed to discuss the decision to study dance at University level and seek their support. Our family moved from Grenada to Eritrea, East Africa after I completed A-levels.
It was here I made my final decision. Being literally on the other side of the world isolated me from teachers, family or friends who may have thought the decision a poor one for “someone so bright”.
In retrospect that was a great gift. There was little to plant seeds of self – doubt or have my mind sated with cautions and warnings. I approached my decision with stubborn youthfulness.
My parents were certainly taken aback… even uncomfortable. But I offered my intent to attain two degrees at once and that was a relieving negotiation. They didn’t discourage me from the fine arts degree but encouraged my pursuit of a business degree in tandem. The difference there may seem small but was, and remains, paramount to me.
MY PARENTS’ SUPPORT HAS MADE A BIG IMPACT
My father left me with one of two very important life lessons he has branded on my brain and heart: Stand by my choices. Take full responsibility for them. Strive and do well in them. If they don’t work out, I am accountable. If they do… I celebrate.
Seeing my tenacity my parents have become my champions. Who I am is because of their quiet yet encompassing encouragement. My mother’s gentle rally has been a raucous cheer through disappointments and achievements. My father’s clap to my back fills me with more pride than any award.
What can I say to young people with doubts? If we don’t push through that feeling, really come to terms with it, evaluate, articulate and admit what that doubt is, then we stand in the limbo of outside opinions and fear.
Make a literal list of your doubts and fears and evaluate if they are worth giving up a career or life goal you truly want to accomplish. Very often, they are not. This takes immense mental and physical practice – I certainly am no sage at it – but the more we can come up against fear, doubt and misdirection, and still persistently stay the course, the more likely the universe will bend and mold itself to our pursuit and accomplishment.
How would you describe your formative years on the island? What is about Grenada that most makes you feel at home when you get back?
I was an over-achiever and a teacher’s pet who did very well in school; an adventurer and explorer who loved going to the country to La Digue, gallivanting Douglaston Plantation in Gouyave, climbing any sturdy tree that could hold me, and splashing like a like a wild dolphin in the ocean. I was involved in sports (from track to netball), loved Arts Festival and was a prefect and head of Adams house at St Joseph’s Convent.
I loved dancing – at shows, special events, school talent shows and in my living room! Then there was the famous ‘Dance Party’ at Le Sucrier at the Sugar Mill! The one and only Saturday afternoon dance you could attend if you were under 16-years-old.
The music and dances of that time will always blaze a smile across my face! I’m telling you, my childhood in Grenada was almost idyllic. The fact that my friendships have sustained the years for us to become family is a testament to that.
RETURNING TO GRENADA IS A PLEASURE
When I come home the genuine joy from friends and family to see me is a great gift and a beautiful heart-warming feeling. In true Grenadian style it usually involves the quip “you are family… not a guest” with access to house and home, food and drink, and of course, plenty of ole talk.
Then there is simply…Grenada. The smell of spices, the colors of lush green (or yellow brown depending on the season), the rapid fire tongue of Grenadians, the familiar comforting burn of the sun, sea breeze, baby blue skies kissed with rolling clouds and healing salty sea water. Somehow that never changes and is quintessentially, Grenada.
How have you handled the transition from wanting to be a star to being the sort of artist that young girls now look up to?
I live in the on-going experience of being a professional performing artist. It never stands still. One accomplishment will begin and it will end, bringing on the next challenge to be tackled. I still have that young girl’s dream of “being a star”…but as I’ve grown up I’ve had to define just what that means to me.
Do I want to be famous? Do I want to be wealthy? Do I want to perform in the world’s best theaters? More importantly what does it take to achieve stardom? Am I willing to do the work, put my emotions at risk, push my body, be willing to fail, be willing to get back up, manage my finances and my brand with knowledge and care?
As it stands, to me being a star means shining brightly and noticeably by excelling at my craft. I want to make an undeniable and important impact on audiences around the world through the medium of theater and my involvement in and conversation about the arts. In the process I want to be paid well, financially rewarded for the time and energy invested in creating and performing.
I SEEK TO BE CHALLENGED AND TO EVOLVE
The transition you are asking about is more an evolution. The process and the growth I experience shifts and molds the woman and the artist I become. This evolution is what I hope young people – or rather all people – benefit from in pursuit of their own goals. We are constantly challenged and therefore constantly changing.
I hope to be involved in the projects that ensure that evolution is climbing ever upward. Even failure, mistakes and poor choices are a part of that upward movement as they serve to strengthen my personal perseverance and challenge my will to keep going.
Watching a dancer on stage is an enthralling experience for the audience, but from a professional point of view can you describe the work that goes into your performance?
It is just that; work! It’s undoubtedly on-going, demanding of your time, hard on the body and often…on the spirit.
Recently, after an exhausting day of over ten hours of rehearsal, I shared on Facebook that the quote, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is myth and rhetoric! This “love” of mine – this passion – requires massive work on all fronts.
The dream requires focus, commitment and work to become reality. Not to mention coming from my tiny beautiful island I was a number of steps behind technically. The work it takes to keep improving is constant!
HARD WORK PAYS
Consider the following quote: “Have a good day’s hard work” – Sister Gabriel, my headmistress, St Joseph’s Convent. She said this every morning at the end of assembly. I know now that by hard work she meant good, focused work that resulted in learning and excellence. I’ve taken that with me every step of the way.
For example, to bring a Broadway production from the page to the stage usually requires a rehearsal schedule spanning six days a week, eight hours a day, for as long as seven or eight weeks (depending on the show). Usually that runs Monday to Saturday leaving one day off to run errands, see friends and family and catch up with the rest of your life. You have to be ready to work anywhere from 9am until the eight-hour mark is met.
Your full physical and mental attention is needed with respect to the process, fellow actors, stage managers, writers, director and choreographer. You are expected to remember script, blocking, choreography and any change thrown at you.
EXCELLENCE IS ONE THING; MAINTENANCE IS ANOTHER
I’ve coined the phrase “retain and maintain”. This is our responsibility in the rehearsal room and onstage: to do the committed work that enables us to retain our notes and maintain the integrity and professionalism of the production.
The foundation behind “Retain and Maintain” is the other most valuable lesson my father gifted me with. After attaining eight distinctions at O-Levels he gave me a plaque that read “Excellence is one thing. Maintenance is another.” It’s become a personal motto.
What are some of your most memorable moments of the Fela! tour?
There are so many incredible moments and memories from both the Broadway and touring experience with Fela!. I’ll share three: the good, the great, the grand:
- The Good: After compounding pain over many months of touring, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc with severe spinal cord compression. Now, I know this sounds terrible…and it was. But the whole story is one of complete guidance by a Higher Power that ultimately led to me having state-of-the-art surgery in Los Angeles.I had my destroyed disc replaced by a futuristic implant. The other options were fusion or…retirement. But being in the right place at the right time with the right doctors meant my career goes on (it’s been two and a half years now and I feel strong and healthy). I also feel a bit like Bionic Woman and Wolverine – part human, part machine with bones of titanium!
- The Great: Meeting Stevie Wonder. In Los Angeles we had the honor of having Stevie Wonder attend the show. Of course, he is blind so how could he enjoy it? Because he is highly sensitive to music, rhythm, pulse, and the energy emitted from the stage. You could see him in his seat moving with his signature sway…and stoically still in the poignant quiet moments.After the show the cast had a chance to meet him and his family. How very gracious he was, taking photographs while expressing great joy at the experience. He spoke to being moved physically and emotionally and he made us feel like the superstars!
- The Incredible: Hands down one of the most memorable and supernatural experiences with Fela! was being nominated for 11 Tony Awards and winning three. At the time it was my first experience attending and being a part of the cauldron of bubbling energy of The Tony Awards. It was both exciting and exhausting.Having worked on the production since it was being created in workshop and having contributed creatively, I was extremely proud of its journey through Broadway and ecstatic to be present to see it awarded. Fela! is hands down one of the most out-of-the-box, glass-ceiling shattering shows you will ever see. It deserved the accolades…and more!
What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome in getting to where you are now?
Myself getting in the way of me. Doubt, fear of failure or embarrassment, anxiety – these are real blockades. I have to create and believe in the arsenal to combat these choke holds. Class, research, lessons, meditation, rest: all serve to strengthen my craft. Others can, have and will succumb to my persistence and determination but they will never believe me if I don’t first believe in myself.
From your perspective, what can be done to improve prospects for professional dancers in the Caribbean?
- Government, private sponsors and private citizens, like me, creating programs that bring artists of all facets to the region for master classes, lecture demonstrations and performances. This should include panels and talk backs where parents, teachers and the general public can talk about the business of show business and how one can in fact make a living on it.
- Offering scholarships to Caribbean dancers, writers, directors, painters and musicians for opportunities to attend internationally accredited conservatories and universities.
- Affording opportunities for teachers to travel and expand their experience with the agreement to return to the region to create and improve programs in support of young artists with the intention of becoming professionals.