Port-au-Prince based Ayikodans returned to Miami this weekend for the second year in a row. And choreographer Jean Guy Saintus, with his unrivaled corps of dancers, proved once again that Haiti is home to immense and sophisticated culture worthy of the world stage.
Ayikodans is an ideal of global artistic exchange. Saintus has mastered the potential of contemporary European and American dance while remaining loyally embedded in the traditional African influence that animates his country. Ayikodans uses almost none of the repetitive patterning found in folkloric dance, which Saintus dismisses as touristic. Instead, their elaborate spatial and movement compositions, defined by elegant lighting design and set pieces, were highly original.
As contemporary and culturally expansive as Ayikodans may be, their performance was intimately bound to the Haitian experience. Anyone who visits Haiti is imprinted by the sounds of the country. Music is everywhere — from compa on loudspeakers to roaming rara bands to the singing and drumming of Vodoun. At the Arsht, Ayikodans foregrounded both recorded and live Haitian music. Their new piece, Danse de L’Araignee, represents a spider spirit from Vodoun called Gede Zarenyen. Here, within fully developed contemporary dance language, Saintus planted the dynamics of traditional Haitian dance and music. Danse de l’Araignee began with a long interval of pitch black, colored by a high wailing voice. The singer was James Germain, a man with a humble but captivating presence. Over the course of the piece, Germain traded sound space with a group of impressive traditional drummers who sometimes shook with their own intensity. Alternately sharp and driving rhythms punctuated the dancers’ bodies as they pulsed through a stream of vivid visual configurations.
Distinctly Haitian emotional, political, and spiritual landscapes were also present in full. In particular, the heartbreak of the 2010 earthquake and its aftermath was keenly felt in Anmwey Ayiti Manman. Miami first saw this piece in 2011, but last year’s version was decorated by refined lighting effects. This year, the piece in its new form was almost unrecognizable. Aesthetic beauty was stripped out and the black box was left essentially bare. Two walls, papered with newspaper pages, stood on either side of the stage and the entire performance space was lined by razor wire. The performers were not so much dancing as expressing pain. They described physical wounds, but also betrayal by national and international political players and a crisis of faith in the earth itself. The audience was presented with anguish, raw, and unadorned. But finally, Anmwey Ayiti Manman revealed the persistence of the will to live. While this piece recalls tragic circumstances, its existence as a work of art is one kind of triumph against disaster.
In a subtler link to Haitian culture, every performer demonstrated a total and almost spiritual dedication to the artistic vision behind the performance. Such devotion points towards a high level of creative commitment but its particular tone bears a relationship to Vodoun. When devotees are possessed during a ceremony, their bodies are totally given to the expression of sacred spirit, and the individual’s own movements, physical limits, even ways of talking are transformed. In the same way, the Ayikodans performers seemed to have given every cell of their bodies over to the dance, and their athleticism was so complete that it was almost superhuman. On stage, performers jumped high in the air and then landed on the floor in complex poses like some kind of animal. They rippled from their heads and shoulders down to their feet while their hands and faces, even their gazes, were intensely focused. There was nothing unconscious about their movement — they were each entirely present in the performance, not as individual egos but as a cohesive group of high-caliber performers in service of an idea.
Given the quality of this performance, it was inconceivable that only a handful of people would see the show in the Arsht Center’s small Carnival Theater, even with a sold-out crowd. Recently, the company was saved from the brink of dissolution and now, with a broader base of support including Miami-based backers, the company may well be able to take their work to larger audiences around the world. This is the kind of exposure they deserve.
Photo: Manny Hernandez
This article first appeared in Miami New Times