DanceAfrica Turns Its (Virtual) Gaze to Haiti

Black magic, zombies, dolls pricked by pins: These may be what most outsiders affiliate with the Haitian non secular apply of vodou, particularly when it’s misspelled “voodoo.” But DanceAfrica, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s competition of African dance, needs to present a distinct aspect.

“The movies always make vodou out to be some kind of demonic devil worship,” mentioned Abdel R. Salaam, the competition’s inventive director. “But every exposure I’ve had has been one of light and empowerment through rhythm. It’s an acknowledgment of the divine forces of nature.”

Vodou developed amongst Afro-Haitians as a mixing of religions from West Africa with an overlay of Catholicism. Often suppressed, it was (and is) however ubiquitous on the island and unfold to Haitian communities within the United States. Its rituals have been mischaracterized and misunderstood, however a method to consider them is as danced communication and communion with ancestors and spirits.

Abdel R. Salaam, the competition’s inventive director, says of vodou: “Every exposure I’ve had has been one of light and empowerment through rhythm. It’s an acknowledgment of the divine forces of nature.”Credit…Tony Turner

Salaam has centered this yr’s DanceAfrica, the 44th, on Haiti, in hope of unveiling that side of vodou. The pandemic additionally affected his determination. Unable to journey to Africa, as he usually would on scouting missions, Salaam selected to flip his consideration to African traditions nearer to residence.

The competition this yr is digital, which is a particular loss for an occasion that’s often as a lot a group gathering as it’s a present — distinguished by call-and-response exchanges between performers and audiences which can be practically as energetic because the food-and-fashion bazaar exterior the theater.

But Salaam is making an attempt to discover the benefits. Streaming on Saturday evening is a DanceAfrica first: an hourlong movie, shot by the ocean in Haiti and on a Bay Area seaside, in addition to at industrial websites and a cemetery in Brooklyn. “People ask, ‘What’s the difference between in-person DanceAfrica and virtual?” Salaam mentioned. “And I say, ‘Close-ups!’”

Film, although, permits for greater than hanging areas, digicam work and close-ups. It expands the geographical vary of individuals. Every DanceAfrica program is blessed by a council of elders, however on this movie members scattered throughout the nation take part. And as well as to DanceAfrica’s residence troupes, 4 different firms contribute, from Haiti and Oakland and Brooklyn, every impressed by a vodou spirit, or lwa.

A scene from the start of the movie, choreographed by Salaam and carried out by the DanceAfrica Spirit Walkers.Credit…Paul Bartlett

As the movie, “Ancestral Voices: They Speak … We Dance!,” strikes amongst spirits and locations, a determine in white connects the sections. It turns into in regards to the diasporic unfold of Haitian tradition, about lineage and traditions which can be alive and altering.

For Dieufel Lamisere, the director of HaitiDansCo in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, the connection to his chosen lwa is private. In 2000, he and 46 different Haitians traveled to the United States in a small boat. He credit Agwe, the spirit of the ocean, together with his survival. His part is a wave-kissed providing, the type carried out by fishermen and sailors searching for safety.

After eight years in New York, Lamisere was deported again to Haiti, the place he began a dance faculty and a corporation known as Dance to Save Lives, which gives free coaching. All the present members of his firm got here by means of that program. During the pandemic, they’ve been residing in Lamisere’s residence, engaged on dances they publish on YouTube.

HaitiDansCo’s part was impressed by Agwe, the spirit of the ocean.Credit…Ednal Mesadieu

“I want to show the world what my country is, not only what they show on TV,” Lamisere mentioned on the telephone from Cap-Haïtien. “Vodou is togetherness. Vodou is something clean, but people don’t take the time to learn.”

Portsha T. Jefferson, the director of the Oakland troupe Rara Tou Limen, has been taking the time for a few years. Although her great-grandmother was Haitian, Jefferson didn’t develop up with a lot connection to the nation. That was one thing she found by means of dance, which opened the door to her spirituality. “Vodou is a healing tradition,” she mentioned. “It is an honorable tradition and it should be respected.”

In 2019, Jefferson traveled to Benin searching for vodou’s roots. “It was so beautiful to see how those traditions are still intact,” she mentioned. She recorded ceremonies and interviews on her telephone — however she then misplaced it. That meant that just like the enslaved individuals who introduced African traditions to Haiti, she had to bear in mind what she had realized.

Those reminiscences inform her part of the movie, shot at Black Sands Beach in Marin County — a web site, she mentioned, that reminds her of Benin. She honors two spirits — not simply Agwe but in addition Agbe, its counterpart in Benin. The ceremony connects the water spirits, recapturing journeys throughout oceans.

Ása Dance Theater Collective invokes the Guede — the sunglass-wearing guardians of the crossroads between life and demise.Credit…Tony Turner

But the movie isn’t solely about honoring the traditions of the previous. All the choreographers, Salaam mentioned, “strike a balance between exploration of tradition and experimentation.”

“They understand that culture isn’t stagnant,” he added. “It’s growing and evolving.”

Adia Tamar Whitaker, the director of Áse Dance Theater Collective in Brooklyn, invokes the Guede, lewd, mischievous, sunglass-wearing guardians of the crossroads between life and demise. Her part, shot on the Brooklyn grave of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose father was Haitian, depicts a funeral of a person with secrets and techniques: lovers and kids not conscious of each other. It’s comedian.

“At a time when so many of us are grieving, I wanted to make people laugh,” Whitaker mentioned. “I didn’t change the traditional movement, but I created my own folklore around it from my own experiences of funerals.”

In the part by Fritzlyn Hector, the director of the Fritzation Experience, the rhythms are conventional, however among the steps come from hip-hop. “My parents are Haitian,” she mentioned, including that she was raised in Haitian dance tradition — her instructor, Marie Edith Jean, was a disciple of the esteemed Jean-León Destiné. “But I’m a girl from Brooklyn, too, and I was also raised in hip-hop. I pull from all those experiences.”

Her choreography, set within the junkyards and warehouses of Red Hook, is devoted to Ogun, a warrior spirit, a spirit of iron. The dancers put on purple and wield machetes. “I call it ‘Steel Standing’ because we’re still standing,” Hector mentioned. “Haitians to me represent perseverance and resilience. I take a lot of pride in that.”

From left, Fritzlyn Hector, Shola Okay. Roberts and Imani Nzingha Johnson filming the Fritzation Experience’s section of “Ancestral Voices: They Speak … We Dance!”Credit…Tony Turner

Another a part of Hector’s lineage is Salaam, whose firm, Forces of Nature, she joined when she was 15. When he determined to deal with Haiti, he requested Hector, whom he calls his “dance daughter,” for strategies of different choreographers. And those she prompt are additionally related. Lamisere is a instructor of Jefferson, who danced and shared roles with Whitaker within the San Francisco-based Haitian troupe of Blanche Brown.

Jefferson and Whitaker are shut pals. They additionally share a drummer, Guy de Chalus, who flew throughout the nation twice to play and seem in each of their sections. “Having the right drummer is exceptionally important,” Whitaker mentioned. “Especially because Portsha and I aren’t Haitian, we have got to be on point, so that Haitians don’t ask, ‘Why do they have these American Negros doing our stuff?’”

Whitaker mentioned she has been considering loads about ancestors this previous yr, particularly after a member of her firm died. “When we got in that cemetery to dance,” she added, “we were dancing with our friend. We were overjoyed to be dancing together, because we need that medicine. This isn’t hippies dancing to drums. This is keeping us alive. This is how our ancestors survived.”

To Whitaker, this yr’s DanceAfrica is particular “because we made it happen,” she mentioned. “None of us have been in class, but we stepped out and danced for ourselves and our ancestors.”

Does she assume that DanceAfrica can change attitudes about vodou? “Considering how our minds have been colonized, I don’t think one show can do that,” she mentioned. “But I do think it can open something in people. Many of us have been doing this for a long time, but it’s a great beginning.”