Dancing Haiti’s history with KaNu Dance Theater

Performers from "Maigre Tout" performed at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center (JCAL).
Photo by Tequila Minsky

On Nov. 15, KaNu Dance Theater’s “Malgré Tout” was presented at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center (JCAL), the 1858 Dutch Reformed Church in Jamaica, Queens. The title means “Despite all, Haiti’s Still Standing.”

Beginning three years ago, at this time of year, KaNu has presented its expressive, Haitian, culturally embedded dance there.

“We were invited in 2012 to introduce a new community to the center,” company director Jessica St. Vil says of how they began to dance in the stunning space, which opened, totally renovated, in 2010. By coincidence, in mid-November Battle of Vertières, an important battle in Haiti’s struggle for independence is also celebrated, a hallmark date in Haitian history.

St. Vil grew up in Queens. She choreographed her first piece in 2003, but it was in 2007 that KaNu Dance Theater took shape.

As the audience got settled, a short video presentation introduced the dance company, a bio illustrating their kind of physicality and fusion of modern and Afro-Caribbean dance.

“Malgré Tout,” the dance-based, multi-arts theatrical presentation, is in two acts.

The evening’s first number, “La Situation,” mirrored the history of violence and unrest that interrupted Haiti’s 2004 bicentennial celebrations; the music of jazz musician Chardavoine and Wyclef Jean provided the soundtrack.

On the program, Bob Marley’s “Redemption,” sung by Ludwine Joseph, began a musical set.

She then sang “Femme” (woman) as a backdrop for the KaNu’s newest work, “She was a Potomitan (center pillar),” choreographed by company member Maxine Montilus.

“We learned a lot about feminism in Haiti as we prepared this,” said St.Vil, dedicating the piece to teacher and author Paulette Poujo-Oriol, one of an earlier wave of Haitian feminists. She died in 2011.

The projection of archival news video of refugees crammed on rickety boats, tipping over with their human cargo, introduced “Above the Water,” danced by the full company.

Young people in the audience later commented that they never knew this part of Haiti’s history.

St. Vil also includes her youth studio company in her concerts. Twelve of her students of ballet, jazz, hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean dance performed “Ti Moun Yo (children)” to Belo’s song of the same name.

“They audition to be selected for the Dance Xpressions Dance Company,” says St. Vil who also has been teaching dance for 20 years.

The piece was dedicated to the children impacted by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

After a brief intermission, “Shadow of a Pearl” the company’s signature piece, was performed to the music of Bob Marley, Toto Bissainthe, and Earthman Experience and live accompaniment from local percussionists Jean-Mary Brignol and Atibon Legba.

Jessica St. Vil knew she would have a life in dance when, after graduating college in mass communication and dance, she auditioned and was accepted with a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey School. For her, the three-year intensive dance program was like graduate studies in dance.

It was also where she was exposed to Katherine Dunham’s dance technique.

St. Vil and her strong modern and classical dance foundation found collaboration and artistic exchanges with the likes of Dunham dancer Joan Peters, Haitian dancer Julio Jean, and Haitian folkloric dancer Peniel Guerrier, masters who introduced to her Haitian movement, her dance cultural heritage.

St. Vil’s 2003 first choreographed piece was based on being torn between Haitian and American cultures.

The eleven-year-old KaNu Dance Theater shares Haitian heritage, history, culture through contemporary modern and Afro-Caribbean Dance.

Ten years ago she opened her own dance school, Danse Xpressions in Valley Stream. Ninety percent are of Caribbean heritage.

JCAL offers a variety of innovative music, dance, and other performing presentations and classes to the Queens community.

KaNu Dance Theater’s “Malgré Tout” was presented at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center (JCAL) on Nov. 15.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

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