Dance: Haitian Dance and Diplomacy on Stage

By Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie, artburstmiami.com

Like so much else when it comes to Haiti, clichés abound in our perceptions of its arts and culture. If it’s painting, then it must all be colorful and bright and in the naïve style! If it’s music, well, heed the voodoo call! But a lot of people probably wouldn’t put Haiti and modern dance in the same sentence.

Time to rethink that.

A chance to look anew at Haitian dance pops up with a one-evening only performance of the island’s Compagnie de Danse Jean-René Delsoin, at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center (SMDCAC) in Cutler Bay on Saturday, Oct. 20, at 8:00 p.m.

Particularly interesting about the Delsoin dance ensemble’s visit, is that it is part of a program called Center Stage, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with funding from several other groups.

The purpose of this initiative, a public-private partnership, is to bring artists from other nations to engage Americans in a kind of cultural diplomacy, where opportunities for dialogue can open up.

“I can’t imagine a more powerful way to promote understanding between us,” Jean-René Delsoin said of what dance can achieve.

Maybe language differences present obstacles, but who doesn’t know how to tap while enjoying a performance? Thus, Haitian performers, as well as colleagues from Indonesia and Pakistan, come in a limited-run tour to touch people’s hearts, and feet, in several cities across the country.

“[Compagnie de Danse] is a really interesting company because they take all the influences of Haiti, and what it means to them to live and be Haitian, and then filter this through modern dance or contemporary dance, which is a highly American way of movement,” explains Eric Fliss, general manager of SMDCAC.

So even though the Haitian experience gets filtered through this very American art form, what attracted Fliss the most is that they “still have the feel and hold of what their roots are and how raw they are.”

The SMDCAC has only been open a year, and Fliss, with over two decades of experience in the South Florida arts scene, makes it a point of bringing artists whose work can connect with South Floridians. “We are trying to reach out and test the diverse cultural community around South Dade to see what really resonates with them,” he says. “We’ve made some benchmarks last year, and we want to follow up on the things that people are interested in seeing, but we also want to slowly introduce a few different genres to them each year to see if we can cultivate a wider breadth of mind.” And reaching out to that audience means engaging with them in different ways. Ways that also include performers in activities that take place off the stage.

That’s why, on Oct. 18, two days before the Compagnie de Danse’s show, the artists will hold a free community outreach event and open dance classes for the public from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Little Haiti Cultural Center (212 NE 59th Terrace, Miami). They will then do the same on the morning of the 20th, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at SMDCAC.

Not only will the community be able to benefit from these experiences, but the dancers as well.

“We are giving the company an outreach experience too, a master class with Peter London, one of our local gems and certainly a master teacher and a former teacher with Martha Graham, because we know that in Haiti these master class opportunities are probably not very frequent,” says Carla Hill, education and outreach manager for SMDCAC, of the class that is scheduled for Oct. 18.

There will also be a special dance class for Homestead Senior High students on Friday the 19th during the school day. In all, keeping the area’s residents center stage. “We want everyone to come and experience our wonderful performances,” states Hill, “but certainly our first priority is to make sure that the residents of South Miami Dade feel ownership of this center, because there has never been anything like that in this area.”

Compagnie de Danse Jean-René Delsoin at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, Saturday, Oct. 20, 8:00 p.m., 10950 SW 211 St., Cutler Bay. Tickets cost $10-$25 ($5 tickets through Culture Shock for ages 13-22). Buy tickets online or by calling 786-573-5300.

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