Ayikodans, one of Haiti’s premiere dance companies, brought so much power and passion to the stage that the Arsht Center’s small Carnival Studio Theater could barely contain them. For three separate shows the audience was packed to capacity, the air was saturated with drumming and singing, and stunning choreography exploded on stage in deeply felt and impeccably athletic performances.
Throw away any expectations you might have about Haitian dance. Jeanguy Saintus, the man behind Ayikodans, drew heavily from Haitian culture, including Haiti’s dance and music traditions, while maintaining his own distinct choreographic voice. Broad and extensive training was revealed in complex choreographic constructions – traces of ballet and modern dance came through, but his movement vocabulary stayed true to Haiti’s African dance heritage by rooting down towards the ground. Sometimes, particularly in ballet, dancers seem as light as air. They almost fly. Ayikodans represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Their performance was characterized by a heavy strength that drew power from the support of the earth below their feet.
Two choreographies were presented, Zantray and Eritaj. Of the two, Zantray was more closely tied to contemporary dance, using movement as an abstract language. Eritaj, on the other hand, was a vision of Haiti’s well-known and often misunderstood spiritual tradition, Vodoun.
Saintus readily ties his choreographic vision to his personal experiences with Vodoun. On stage, the deep roots of belief fed the dancers’ movements with an overwhelming sense of otherworldly presence. The spirits of the Vodoun pantheon are said to express themselves in exaggerated postures when they possess a devotee. In Eritaj, three incredible soloists embodied different spirits with absolute commitment, from bulging eyes to expressive and specific hand gestures. Their movements in space had clearly been influenced by close observation of ceremonial possession, as a matter of both artistic beauty and spiritual reverence. A supporting cast of equally impressive dancers played the role of hounsi, initiates, and their bodies shivered as if in the presence of a living spiritual force.
At times, the dancers were literally breathtaking in their physicality, particularly the men, who at times lowered themselves to the ground with such strength that they seemed to be unaffected by gravity. When these moments came, the entire audience was shocked into complete silence and stillness, followed by the murmuring sounds of awe and disbelief.
Add live music into the mix. Saintus recruited a crew of master drummers and a singer who stunned the audience during an intermission with beautifully rendered traditional rhythms and songs, also calling to the Vodoun spirits. The largely Haitian audience could barely sit still and some people joined in, singing in low voices. The live music continued into the second half of the performance. Not all of the show was backed by live music, but the night’s strongest moments certainly were.
As the show progressed, the theater was filled to maximum with a palpable buzz of excitement. After the show was over, a lively crowd stayed in the Arsht Center’s lobby to celebrate. Many reunions happened that night. The Haitian performance community is a tight group of artists who happen to be spread out across the globe. Dancers, singers, and drummers from Port-au-Prince, New York, California, and Miami embraced each other enthusiastically – some of them had not seen each other for years.
What was planned as a fundraising trip became something much more: an indisputable artistic success. It was a proud moment for Haiti, a reminder that the little Caribbean island so often associated with misery has given birth to artists of the highest caliber.