Haiti dance group battles for cultural survival
When an earthquake shook Haiti's capital in January 2010, bringing death and destruction to the impoverished Caribbean nation, it all but crushed the dreams of modern dance choreographer Jeanguy Saintus.
For years, he had been battling against all odds to win recognition for his talented but cash-starved company, Ayikodans. Now, earthquake damage to his dance studio had rendered it unusable, and most of his dancers were too busy repairing their own lives to make it to rehearsals.
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To top it off, many of the students at the ballet school he runs, and which partly finances the company, had fled the country with their parents for safe haven in the United States, Canada and France.
"We thought it was the end for us artists," said Saintus. "After the earthquake, everyone talked about rebuilding Haiti, but the arts were not on anyone's list."
But 2 1/2 years later, Ayikodans has emerged from the rubble, performing to rapt audiences in Miami and earning the kind of rave reviews and cultural attention and support Saintus strived so long for.
Last month, the company performed two sold-out shows at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami featuring the group's latest work, Danse de L'Araignee (the Dance of the Spider), a stunning blend of Haitian spiritual traditions with modern dance accompanied by rhythmic drums and a soulful singer.
The state-of-the-art $500 million Arsht Center, opened in 2006, is a far cry from the company's ramshackle studio in the hills above the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The group hopes its success in Miami will be a stepping stone to bigger venues, including a much sought-after invitation to perform this fall at New York City Center, one of the world's most prestigious dance theaters.
BEAT OF ANCESTORS, RHYTHM OF MODERN WORLD
The story of how Ayikodans made the journey from cultural oblivion to standing ovations is a tale of Haitian courage and determination, plus a helping hand from friends in Miami who came to the rescue.
Saintus, 44, founded Ayikodans in 1988 just as Haiti was emerging from the dark years of the Duvalier dictatorship. Raised by a single mother who died when he was 14, he was barely out of his teens and desperate to break Haiti's cultural mold.
"Ayikodans was a necessity at first. In Haiti, dance was for girls," he said, noting that upper- and middle-class families would send their daughters for ballet lessons where they rehearsed for recitals of traditional works such as "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker."
Saintus had been trained in classical ballet too, but he wanted to incorporate the beauty and elegance of European ballet with the country's Afro-Haitian cultural roots. "Nobody ever cared about that until we came along," he says.
"Ayikodans is very special, they dance to the beat of our ancestors, and the rhythm of the modern world. This is who we are," said Youri Mevs, a wealthy Haitian businesswoman and the group's principal benefactor.
Saintus sees it as part of his mission to show the world that Haiti is not a hopeless third-world basket case. "Haiti is not just about slums, coups and political corruption. It is also land of culture and artists."
But it has been an uphill struggle to convince Haiti's elite in a country that has virtually no funding for the arts, and where there are no concert halls or theaters, and only one operating cinema.
Saintus says he has never been approached by an official from the Haitian Ministry of Culture, even after he won the 2008 Prince Claus Award given by the Dutch government for cultural achievement. "As far as I know, they don't exist, they are just names," he said.
With no proper dance venues, and a limited budget for costumes, lighting and sound equipment, Saintus said it was hard to build a following in Haiti.
"They perform out of sheer will," says Mevs.
Most of the company's 25 dancers work full-time with Ayikodans and almost all came up through Saintus' school, Danspyenu (Dance Barefoot), which offers classes to poor kids.
"I trained these dancers. They are my babies," he says.
One of his graduates, Vitolio Jeune, is an orphan who went on to be a finalist on the television series "So You Think You Can Dance" and now performs with the renowned Garth Fagan Dance company in New York.
After the earthquake, Saintus was left with only three dancers, and almost for the sake of therapy they sat down and crafted their experience into a harrowing dance, titled, "Amwe Ayiti Maman," or "Cry Mother Haiti."
With nowhere to perform it, friends of Saintus reached out to John Richard, head of the Arsht Center. On a whim, Richard went to Haiti in July 2010 and saw Ayikodans perform a vignette on their studio stage. "I was really taken by the genuine, resonating quality of the music and dance and the rustic nature of the studio," he said. "Jeanguy told me, 'I don't think we're going to make it and survive.'"
Richard decided he could not let that happen. "Someone had to step into this void. We need them to continue to tell the Haitian story through dance," he said.
A grass-roots movement took shape leading to a one-off fundraising performance last year in Miami that raised $117,000, enough to keep the company alive.
Tom Murphy, head of Miami construction firm Coastal, was moved to tears when he saw the group dance. "I don't know how they survive, God bless them. They are so extraordinarily good it just struck a chord with me."
He wrote a check for $50,000.
Richard invited Ayikodans back for two performances in May, which were sold out three weeks in advance. "We hope we can help magnify their work so they become more established," he said.
"We feel it's important. Their message is powerful and the rest of the world should see it and hear it."