"You dance the epoch you live," says choreographer Jeanguy Saintus. The popular Haitian saying serves as a motto for his dance company, Artcho Danse Répertoire. Founded in 1987 by Saintus and co-director, Jean-Rene Delsoin, Artcho presents traditional Haitian dance in a brand-new form. "I wasn't born in 1804," explains Saintus, referring to the year the tiny black republic won independence. "I was born in 1964. My work is Afro-contemporary. Everything I do is based on the lakou, on the vodou temple, but I am a creator in the new millennium."
Artcho departs from well-worn formulas for Haitian dance established between the 1930s and the 1950s. The U.S. military occupation from 1915 to 1934 gave Haitian culture a bad rap. Yankee soldiers and journalists sent home sensational accounts of creepy zombies and bloodthirsty "voodoo" priests. The Haitian elite was eager to promote a more positive, less primitive image of their national culture. Under the friendly name of folklore, the elites invented a kinder, gentler vodou ritual for the stage. This folkloric dance used the same movements as the sacred dances, sans the messy animal sacrifice and scary possession by the gods. Perpetually smiling dancers in colorful costumes moved in orderly lines across the floor to counts of eight.
When black anthropologist and dance pioneer Katherine Dunham used Haitian dance to develop her famous Dunham Technique in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she borrowed as much from the neat conventions of folklore as from the wild "voodoo" fancies of U.S. Marines. In her classic piece Shangó, Dunham appeals to the exotic fantasies of New York audiences with the suggestion of human sacrifice.
Don't expect to see any blood on the stage at an Artcho performance, though. "I'm not interested in doing tourist shows," protests Saintus. "I don't want Artcho to be exotic." His dancers train in a variety of disciplines, from traditional vodou dance and classical ballet to the modern masters Horton, Graham, and Limón, and the contemporary practice of improvisation.
As part of the dance showcase Caribbean Dance Celebration 2000, Artcho will perform "Celebration," the second movement from Saintus's full-length ballet, Hommage a Erzulie. Choreographed in 1997, the ballet honors Erzulie, the vodou deity of love, sensuality, and power. Although the inspiration is traditional, Saintus calls the choreography "a contemporary ceremony." "Celebration" culminates in the amorous dance kongo. "I vary the movement and the rhythm of the five basic kongo steps," explains Saintus. "I add contractions and extensions. I use spiral turns and screams. Erzili screams because we are always fighting in Haiti. She screams all the screams of my people in the streets, my people in jail, my people dancing."
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