Haiti’s Ayikodans Finds a real Home at the Arsht
The Adrienne Arsht Center is celebrating its 10th birthday this season, and it wouldn’t be a party without the presence of Haiti’s premier modern dance company, Ayikodans. A longtime favorite of the center and Miami audiences, the company will perform this weekend, its sixth performance in as many years.
This year’s program features the world premiere of M’Angaje, created by Ayikodans’ founder, artistic director and choreographer Jeanguy Saintus and commissioned by the Arsht Center for its 10@10 series celebrating its anniversary. Another work, Phases, is a retrospective of sorts, an examination of Saintus’ three decades of work with movement. The show will include the live drummers and vocalists that have become synonymous with Ayikodans performances, as well as lighting by the design team that also works with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Ayikodans dancer Johnnoiry Saint Philippe Marie Ostensson Photography
The Haitian Creole word “m’angaje” defies easy translation. It can mean “I am committed.” But Saintus describes it more broadly as a cry for help. Within the seeming despair of this call is an acknowledgment that help is possible, that there is a “commitment” to help and hope. Saintus has set this complicated theme to dance.
Here, as in everything he choreographs, Saintus also has a commitment to the roots of Haitian culture. For all of his love of contemporary dance — which consistently informs his work — the heart of what he creates comes out of the sacred dances of the Vodou religion.
And Saintus knows one or two things about needing help. His company’s dance studio, which took years of dedicated work to build, was destroyed in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. There seemed no way forward. Relief came unexpectedly from the Arsht Center and individuals in Miami who coalesced around its leadership. Saintus was able to rebuild his studio and keep his company intact, reopening in 2013. He was also able to resume teaching dance classes, many offered free of charge to talented dancers with precious few resources.
“The support from the Arsht Center has been nothing less than wondrous,” Saintus said by phone from his home in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 22, as cancellation of Haiti’s presidential run-off elections caused violent protests that kept some of his students at home.
In the years since he rebuilt the studio, Saintus and Ayikodans have been applauded internationally, performing in a range of settings in Europe, the United States and the Caribbean.
At least as important as this growing international reputation is his continued commitment to dancer training at home.
“What classes one can find in Haiti are in Port-au-Prince, the capital,” Saintus said. He set out to remedy that in 2014 with an ambitious project known as Danser Les Vil (Dance in the Cities). In what he hoped would become an annual event, Saintus brought instructors to three Haitian cities: Aquin, Les Cayas and Gonaives.
“In each city we were able to accommodate 75 to 80 people in our workshops,” Saintus said. “Still more dance students waited outside hoping to be able to come in, too. The project culminated in our Port-au-Prince studio; we were able to invite the 10 most gifted from each city to work with us. Many of them had never allowed themselves to dream of a real dance class before.”
Saintus sounds intensely frustrated when asked why the program did not continue.
“No monies are given to the arts” in Haiti, he said. “No, let me rephrase, plenty of money is given to anybody whose art can benefit a politician. Many of them think nothing of paying $2 million for an event. But give $10,000 to support a dance studio? Never.
“It wasn’t anyone in Haiti who provided the support for our Dance in the Cities. That was done by the Public Affairs Department of the U.S. Embassy.”
Six years after the earthquake, Saintus is still looking outward for help and commitment.
“We still have found no way to survive in Haiti except day by day,” he said. “But we can dance at the Arsht Center if we cannot dance at home.”
Ayikodans performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; tickets $40, 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org.
This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.