Value your culture

Haitian choreographer bats for recognition of traditions

By Richard Johnson
Observer senior reporter

Sunday, July 01, 2018

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For Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus, the Caribbean region is a rich, diverse cultural space replete with traditions and experiences which rival the rest of the world and provide the ultimate fodder for creative expression.

Widely considered to be among the leading dance practitioners in the region, he is currently in Jamaica setting a new work on the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) to be included in the upcoming season of dance which runs at the Little Theatre in St Andrew from July 20 to August 12.

This is not the first work Saintus is contributing to the NDTC repertoire. In 2002, at the invitation of co-founder and artistic director the late Professor Rex Nettleford, he set Incantation which is still part of the active body of work of the company.

“We are rehearsing Souffle Extenso. The idea is that we breathe with dance. Like everything in our lives, we breathe when we're happy, we breathe when we're in pain; we breathe also when we feel relieved. So it's always there. This piece represents what we are as Caribbean people a diverse culture without holding ourselves into one thing. We keep everything that we have as out heritage , but we open ourselves also to the contemporary world without losing what we have as Caribbean, culturally speaking. That's why the overture of the piece, the music is from an Haitian composer with violins and bass but the props that we will be using are modern props which include an ason (a bead-covered gourd with a bell attached given to newly initiated voodoo priests). So imagine having this ritual , sacred thing, and a music close to classical and a dance that is not classical and its not contemporary,” he explained.

That strong sense of pride and value in the culture of his native Haiti and, indeed, the wider Caribbean can be seen and felt in the work of the 54-year-old choreographer, and he is unapologetic. He shies away from listing his credentials noting that the true test and recognition lies in the quality of his work and the way it is received by audiences.

“I try not to say that Jeanguy Saintus has a technique, has a style... people say I do because I have a way of working, but I think that I am more into a system in which I translate everything into dance based on my everyday experiences and based on the techniques that I learned and those which I have rejected. So I am more into a system where everything in my life is part of the way I move.I know Haitians and other Caribbean artistes who don't want to be Caribbean; they want to be universal. But I say when you take an American actor, he is proud to be American. When you take a European choreographer, they don't want to be universal . Your work will be universal based on the quality and the reception that you have from different audiences. So some Haitians will say I don't do voodoo in my choreography... I don't have that problem. This is part of my body experience that I always have,” Saintus told the Jamaica Observer.

He is too aware of the difficulty for creatives in this region who must operate in the global community to have a strong sense of self. But Saintus pointed that he stresses to his dancers that opening themselves to the contemporary world doesn't mean losing themselves as a lot of what is being taught already exists in our traditions.

He says the work to correct negative perceptions and the feeling of being less than is in the hands of companies and dancers in the region.

“Maybe one day we will move away from that bad perception of if it's in Jamaica its not that good. That same dancer will perform with the Royal Ballet in London or at Alvin Ailey in New York, and when the dancer is at Alvin Ailey he is good, but if its NDTC or Ayiko Danse it is not international. We must impose quality in our work because it's not easy for Caribbean dancers and choreographers. I don't want us to look to Europeans standards, but we must take care of our bodies and if there is too much weight, you cannot dance and you will always be in pain. If we start valuing ourselves and take seriously what we we are doing, it may not be for tomorrow, but since we have more openness, more things are happening, more exchanges between people, maybe we can change things,” said Saintus.

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