The Miami Herald recently featured the Haitian dance company Ayikodans and Artcho Danse, its school, a labor of love built over the span of 23 years by dancer and choreographer Jeanguy Saintus (47). Jordan Levin writes, “So many people in Haiti still need so much: shelter, food, work, security. But Haitian 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.” See excerpts (with a link to the full article below):
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.” [. . .] Saintus believes that art can give his country something to aspire to beyond the construction of housing and the creation of factory jobs.
[. . .] “All of us are in awe of this company’s motivation to survive,” says John Richard, the [Arsht] Center’s president who was inspired to help after visiting Ayikodans last summer. [. . .] 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.
[. . .] 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.
[. . .] 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. [. . .] 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.
[. . .] “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.”
For more on Akiyodans, more information and photo of founder Jeanguy Saintus, see http://ayikodans.wordpress.com/about/
For full article, see http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/05/15/2210590_p3/haitis-ayikodans-company-performs.html