A report by Lindsey Winship for London’s Guardian
Since its infamous premiere in 1913, there have been many reimaginings of the Nijinsky/Stravinsky ballet The Rite of Spring, but never before as a vodou initiation ceremony. Forget sticking pins in dolls and other horror-film cliches, vodou – not voodoo, note – is “a religion like any other”, says choreographer Jeanguy Saintus, a practising vodouist and the man who powers contemporary dance in Haiti with his company Ayikodans.
Saintus draws on the rituals of vodou in his first UK commission, for Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre. His Rite of Spring will be performed in a double bill with Opera North, accompanied by their orchestra. Saintus was tentative at first, having never worked with a classical orchestra, but he felt a surprising link between this story of pagan Russia (the ritual sacrifice of a “chosen” girl to the gods of the harvest), and the roots of his own culture.
“When I saw The Rite of Spring for the first time I was sitting in a theatre in Berlin, yet I was back home at the initiation ceremony. All the processes they do for the Chosen One is the same thing as when the loa [vodou spirits] decide to possess you.” The vodou initiation, called a kanzo ceremony, is the equivalent of a baptism, with song, dance and spirit possession that may send participants into a trance. Can you tell me about your own initiation? I ask Saintus. “Nooo,” he laughs warily. “This is something very personal.”
In Saintus’s Rite, the loa appear: Damballa, the serpent and creator of life, Ogoun, the warrior and Marassa, the divine twins. I watch the dancers in the studio perform full-bodied choreography, with rippling port de bras, powerful poses and an exhausting climax of jolting bodies. Saintus wasn’t on board with the idea of a sacrifice, so his Rite ends with a man being possessed by a female spirit in a takeback of power. He created the work with the dancers, telling them stories about his religion, but he is insistent on not being prescriptive about what people should see. “If you don’t know vodou, you will see dance,” he says.
He doesn’t want people to come with preconceptions of Haitian culture, either. “When people hear ‘Haiti’, it’s always about poverty and the earthquake, and they are like, ‘Do they dance in Haiti?’ Someone asked me that, he couldn’t understand that someone could be training in classical ballet in Port-au-Prince.” Saintus was, it’s true, the only boy at his ballet school. (“In Haiti, men don’t dance.”) But he never had any doubt about his calling. “I think I was born a dancer,” he says. His mother died when he was 14 (he didn’t meet his father until he was in his 20s). “I’m pretty sure she would love the end result, but I don’t know if when I was 14 she would be that open to me going to dance school.” His community’s attitudes did not stop him though. “I have a strong character, I can say that.”
After ballet school in Haiti, Saintus travelled in the US and Caribbean taking all kinds of classes: modern dance, Afro-Brazilian. He had a kind of photographic memory – he could watch a class or performance and remember every step. (“Now I’m too old to do that,” he says, at 54.) His education also came from assisting at vodou ceremonies. “People are dancing beautifully and they don’t even know it,” he says. “I remember that a woman was possessed and she went down to the ground, rolling and contracting. Sometimes you are at a ceremony and you don’t want to be possessed, so when you feel like something is coming, you leave the room.” One man was heading for the door when suddenly his body flexed into a deep backbend. “I’m pretty sure that in his life this man could never do a backbend, but those are the type of things I’ve discovered.”
Despite not wanting to dwell on Haiti’s problems, we inevitably talk about the 2010 earthquake. “I was driving at the time,” says Saintus, “going to see a documentary on Martha Graham. I was in the right-hand lane, when I had the feeling that something put the car all the way to the other side. I’ve never lived any experience like that. I had to leave my car downtown in Port-au-Prince and walk 10km home. I thought the school would be destroyed, but only part had collapsed.”
They rebuilt the studio in 2013. Generally, on the island, recovery has been slow. “They stole all the money,” says Saintus. “So, recovery? I don’t know. They gave the money to institutions, certain big foundations took all the money.”
There’s little funding for the arts in Haiti, but Saintus seems able to make things happen that less determined people might not. “It’s a blessing that I was chosen to be a dancer,” he says. “And being in Haiti it is also a mission. So many times you ask yourself: why am I doing this? Because there is no support. But I feel I have a responsibility to keep dance alive. To take dance to a different level. We can do a lot with dance, and it can be a very good tool for peace.” Do you really think so? I ask him. “Yes!” he’s emphatic. “Did you see the beauty of the dancers in the studio? Just imagine if everybody was dancing,” he says. “Just imagine.”