dimanche 15 mai 2011

Haiti’s Ayikodans company performs the rhythms of life and joy

From disaster, Haiti’s Ayikodans company and its charismatic leader shape performances and dreams
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 22
Where: Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Cost: $150 Saturday, $35 May 22.
Info: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org

By Jordan Levin
So many people in Haiti still need so much: shelter, food, work, security. But Haitian dancer and choreographer Jeanguy Saintus believes there is something else they need, something less tangible but just as essential — the sense of joy, possibility and self-worth to be found in art. For 23 years this belief has driven him to struggle and sacrifice as he built Ayikodans, one of Haiti’s few professional modern-dance companies, and Artcho Danse, its school.
Even after the January 2010, cataclysm that killed more than 300,000 of his countrymen and wrecked large parts of Port-au-Prince, including his studio and school, Saintus still has faith in the power and necessity of art.
“The excuse in Haiti has always been that culture is not a priority, and especially dance is not a priority,” Saintus says, sitting in a conference room at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where his company will perform this weekend in fundraising events critical for its survival. “Which is not true. Because if you give food to someone once a day, what else can you offer after the food? People need to dance. People need to sing.”
Tall and perilously thin, Saintus moves with a taut, wary grace, large eyes glowing in a close-shaven, elegant head. He seems simultaneously vulnerable and driven. Dance has kept him going against tremendous odds, and Saintus believes that art can give his country something to aspire to beyond the construction of housing and the creation of factory jobs.
“Since I entered dance I wanted to do something different,” Saintus says. “And I thought that the best thing to do is to have a company. That was crazy, because how can you do a company without money, without a place? But in the end, even though we are still struggling, it was a good idea. Because it gives people the right to dream about what they want to do. You have a right to dream, a right to create.”
Now Saintus, 47, is getting help for his dream from a coalition of Miami supporters drawn by his perseverance and dedication. They are led by the Arsht Center, which is presenting Ayikodans. Organizers expect to raise $50,000 from ticket sales and donations to keep the troupe going as the center pulls together funding to commission a work from Saintus for a full-scale presentation early next year.
“All of us are in awe of this company’s motivation to survive,” says John Richard, the center’s president who was inspired to help after visiting Ayikodans last summer.
“We saw this as an opportunity to raise the company up in different ways. We have the ability to find the necessary resources to showcase the extraordinary choreography of Ayikodans, and, hopefully, Jeanguy’s story and efforts would be exposed to the world as a result. And the world would see the resilience of the Haitian people and the spirit that dance can bring to the community under such terrible conditions.”
Offers of help
Richard and others working to present Ayikodans say they have been surprised by the willingness and speed with which people have offered to help. Among the contributors are Coastal Construction Group, which has done business in Haiti, and Nopin, a Haitian long-distance calling service, each of which has given $10,000. The aid has not just been financial. Richard introduced Ayikodans to Al Crawford, the longtime lighting designer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who has volunteered to light the show in Miami. Cristina Barrios, consul general at the Spanish Consulate in Miami, who has headed her country’s reconstruction efforts in Haiti and was impressed by Saintus’ work there, is seeking to arrange a tour in Spain.
“People say, ‘We care about Haiti. We care about society as well, but we never see where the money goes,’ ” says Youri Mevs, a managing partner of WinGroup, which owns a terminal and industrial parks in Haiti and has been one of Ayikodans’ few supporters there. “So we will help the Arsht Center develop these community ties.”
Mevs, who has known Saintus for 15 years and helps lead the Miami effort to save his company, says she has long been moved by the choreographer’s determination and talent.
“Any time I testify to his courage and talent I believe I testify to the existence of God,” she says. “In this guy there is something bigger than all of us. I am very proud to be his friend.”
One of five children of a single mother, Saintus grew up next to a Lakou, or voudou temple, to the sound of drumming and the sight of women dancing in traditional ceremonies.
“I consider that I was born to be a dancer, a choreographer, because dance was always part of my life,” he says. His mother, who worked in factories and sold food and clothes on the street, died of cancer at 47, when Saintus was 14. He describes her as happy, loving and encouraging. “My mother used to tell us, ‘You are who you want to be. Being poor, it’s just a state of mind, ’” he says.
She remains an inspiration, most directly in one of his largest works, Le Bal de Gede (The Ball of the Dead) from 1995.
“When my mother died I was always going to the cemetery to talk to her. Every time I had a problem I go and talk to my mother, and I saw it as something beautiful,” Saintus says. “One day I was reading the Bible, and I find in Ecclesiastes where it says that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living. And I use it as the synopsis of my ballet. Because in my mind my mother was still alive, and she wasn’t suffering, and the Gedes were beautiful and happy and dancing and not as miserable as we are.”
Adopted by his uncle, Saintus began studying in his late teens at a ballet studio filled almost exclusively with light-skinned, upper-class girls whose ambitions mostly didn’t extend beyond a yearly recital. He struggled with dual prejudices, as a man studying ballet in a macho culture, dark-skinned and poor in a class- and color-conscious society.
“When you are a boy in Haiti your parents will never take you to a dance class, especially ballet,” he says.
“He didn’t belong,” Mevs says. “Male dancers of a certain social class didn’t exist. It was all girls. It made it even worse for him to follow his dreams.”
Dance Barefoot
For Ayikodans’ first decade, the students and company were made up primarily of the same sort of well-to-do girls whom Saintus had encountered as a student. Then he started a scholarship program called Dansepyenu (Dance Barefoot), and soon most of the money from his paying students was going to support those who couldn’t pay. Often, Saintus give his scholarship students food, clothing or a place to stay. The company toured internationally, and in 2008 Saintus received the Prince Claus Award from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for his progressive approach to culture. Instead of teaching ballet and presenting amateurish renditions of the classics, Saintus has created a blend of contemporary and Haitian traditional dance and music, a style he believes truly represents Haitian culture.
Among his Dance Barefoot protégés is Ayikodans’ biggest success story, Vitolio Jeune, who made his way to Saintus as a homeless, orphaned teenager dancing hip-hop on the streets of Port-au-Prince for change. Jeune studied and lived with his teacher and was soon taken into the company; then accepted into Miami’s New World School of the Arts. After graduation he did a short stint on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance in 2009 before joining acclaimed modern-dance troupe Garth Fagan Dance, where he’s been singled out by critics as one of the company’s best dancers in years.
Jeune, 28, says Saintus gave him not just a career and a home but also discipline and self-respect.
“He taught me to value myself not only as a dancer but as a human being,” Jeune says from Rochester, where the Fagan company is based. “I had to work really hard for everything. He would say to me all the time, ‘It’s the results that count.’ And he taught me that just because someone has a family which is very wealthy, that does not make them better than me. You just have to work hard. And your art will make you who you are supposed to be.”
Jeune says the only time he ever saw his mentor discouraged was after the earthquake, which severely damaged the studio and theater.
“We spoke, and he was really losing it,” Jeune says. “Then after a couple of days he was like, ‘OK, I’m not giving up. I’ve been fighting so long, I’m not giving up now.’”
Jeune is not giving up on his mentor, either. He will come to Miami to perform with Ayikodans.
“I want to be part of this,” he says. “I just want to help. Jeanguy put me on the right path. I owe that to him.”

Hope is goal
Even as he struggles to keep his dancers in rehearsal and his landlord from evicting him, Saintus hopes the Miami shows will not only give Ayikodans the means to survive but also bring hope to his country and validation for his mission to persuade Haitians of the value of art. He hopes Miamians will be inspired to help Ayikodans, and Haiti, not because of his troupe’s desperation and need but for its possibility and determination.
“What people see in the media and on TV about Haiti is very difficult,” Saintus says. “Even if you tell them, ‘I have great dancers,’ they will think, ‘Oh, that’s nice, but how can a dancer be great in a poor country?’ So when they see it, that becomes something different.
“Hopefully people will come and be generous and love the dance and see something different about Haiti — that we have beauty and power to share and not just poverty.”
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/05/15/v-fullstory/2210590/haitis-ayikodans-company-performs.html#ixzz1MQnLIYrr

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