Jordan Levin

Spirit and longing from Haiti’s Ayikodans

Members of Ayikodans in Jeanguy Saintus’ "M'Angaje" at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
Members of Ayikodans in Jeanguy Saintus’ "M'Angaje" at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. mhalper@miamiherald.com

A sense of ritual and longing hovers over the latest program from Ayikodans, the Haitian dance troupe performing at the Adrienne Arsht Center through Saturday evening. While these elements have always been present in the work of Jeanguy Saintus, Ayikodans’ artistic director, they seemed more powerful than ever on Thursday night’s opening show at the center’s Carnival Studio Theater.

The focus of the evening was the premiere of M’Angaje, commissioned by the Arsht Center for its 10th anniversary season. The Arsht Center has been a steadfast supporter of Saintus’ troupe for six years, and the new piece is meant, in part, to pay tribute to that relationship. But judging by the vodou symbolism that fills M’Angaje, and a program note that talks of connecting to spirits, soul and roots, the dance seems more spiritual ceremony than worldly celebration.

M’Angaje opens in darkness to the sound of the nine dancers in hymn-like song. As the lights come up we see them lying on the floor, clad in bright red, jumpsuit-like garments and illuminated by veves, the abstract designs that both represent and channel the gods of vodou. (The sumptuously theatrical, painterly lighting is, once again, by arc3 design, the lighting team for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, whose work with Ayikodans has been another gift of working with the Arsht Center. The striking, fluid costumes are credited to Artcho Danse and Malou Cadet.)

Singer Renette Desir walks through, singing another plaintive hymn, followed by the powerful-voiced James Germain and the sound of four drummers. Their voices seem to summon the dancers, who could be dead or sleeping, so that the action that follows could be that of dreams or spirits — even as they’re also ardent physical rituals to otherworldly figures. The dancers loft large metal bowls, also painted inside with veves, which the light turns glowing red; they could be channels to the spirit world, or eyes.

Three dancers do a scooping, reaching, prayerful dance to a song for Damballah, the vodou snake god; followed by three men, in tight black briefs, in a sharp, rapid, aggressive stomping and leaping sequence. Johnnoiry Saint Philippe, in shimmery gold skirt, is a powerful, yearning presence in a solo to a song for Erzulie, the goddess of love. The ensemble parades with bright-colored flags embroidered with symbols, dancing with stomping, hip-thrusting movements, occasionally vibrating as if possessed.

M’Angaje ends with the dancers filing slowly past the audience and out the theater doors, the singers chanting, the sound of ocean waves in the background. They seem part of an endless passage between past and present, physical and spiritual. There’s something powerful, but also exhausting about their journey. Will they ever arrive? Will their prayers be answered?

Much of the sense of longing that fills M’Angaje stems from the unrelenting physical intensity of Saintus’ choreography. The dancers move either with slow tension, or hard and fast; they never flow or release. Even their faces are taut. Their yearning never seems to be satisfied. With just two women, the company’s energy is also overwhelming male.

The opening piece, Phases, for five dancers, shares M’Angaje’s physical intensity and sense of ritual and symbolism, also set to Desir and Germain’s powerful, plaintive vocals. There are references to home; at one point, a man arranges sheer red fabric on the floor into the shape of a house and entry, and the dancers wield straw brooms, symbols of domesticity, but also protection and warning — a broom by the door could warn of intruders. Phases seems even more filled with tension and angst: the dancers pound the floor with the brooms and clutch them in their grimacing mouths, which they also spread in silent screams. They take squatting, warlike poses, fists clenched, and there’s a contorted, twisting solo by the fiery Mackenson Israel Blanchard. The figures in Phases seem fiercely defensive, but they’re also trying to break free.

If you go

What: Ayikodans

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

Info: $40, 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org; all performances but the Saturday matinee are sold out

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