History of Haiti thru drums and dance

Curtain call, after the last number, dancers in their carnival costumes.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

Peniel Guerrier sweeps an engrossed audience wordlessly using only the rhythms of the drums and dance by his dance students through 600 years of Haitian history starting with the indigenous Taino Indians. The historical female chief Anacoana, the ruler of Hispaniola before Columbus, is introduced as she is respectfully carried high.

As the consummate dance teacher, Peniel’s knowledge and facility with Haitian history and folkloric dance and music provided the infrastructure for his students to tell Histoire D’Haiti (History of Haiti) through dance at The Ailey Extension on May 21.

Actually, a few words were spoken. At the very start of the dance-drama in midtown, author Edwidge Danticat read a small portion from a fictionalized diary of Anacoana, also known as the Golden Flower.

Included in this entry, Anacoana writes of natural disasters. These words with layers of meaning are prescient and span the decades. Then was a time of hurricanes, the word hurricane is from the Taino. The student dancers bring us into the harmonious island that Anacoana ruled.

In dance, then, the arrival of Columbus with his sailors, the Tainos are physically and psychically assaulted, captured and forced to labor. It is just the beginning of the misery that would befall this island. Next comes the arrival of the enslaved.

The scenic backdrop for the large performance space is provided by rear projection suggesting our setting: first, an image of an Indian village, then a swath of deep blue providing the sea on which the slave ships navigate.

The stagecraft here is exceptional–the simplest fabrication resembles a ship, inside, bodies–shapes from the curve of the dancers’ backs or tops of heads, evoking the numbers of the anonymous horded into the ships. Equally iconic, in silhouette, are the slave traders. The dance that follows starts with the submissive posture of the enslaved and moves toward tragic death.

And the women of the colonialists arrive, as do more slaves who labor and serve.

The lights on stage grow very dim; it is dark, night, and the sound from the conch. A dancer is Neg Mawon–the slave with the shell in one hand, the machete in the other–calling the other slaves to rebellion. They come, and it is the ceremony of Bwa Kayiman, the beginning of the revolution. The rhythms are petwo. The performing area is bathed in red light; all is crimson, the color of blood, the color of the revolution. The drummers beat the vodou rhythms of the warrior spirit Ogun.

The performance moves quickly following the revolution and references nationhood with the flag. Then to modern compas music with T-Vice. The evening almost ends with carnival music and dance but the finale is when audience members are encouraged to come onto the performance space and dance to the drumming, finally engaging with the movements they’ve been watching and the rhythms that have stirred their hearts.

Artist director, music composer and choreographer of the performance, Peniel Guerrier is seen on stage often at many Caribbean or Haitian events in the New York area.

This is the sixth year Peniel’s dance students from all his classes performed “Kriye Bode” (all aboard, joining together), an annual colloquium on Haitian dance and drum. One dancer who has performed for four years said this year was different, the first for her that followed a narrative theme.

In one of the most innovative award presentations ever witnessed, Peniel Guerrier honored four artists before the dance-drama began: Edwidge Danticat, Haitian author; Frisner Augustin, master drummer; Djoniba Mouflet, African dance choreographer and Jean Claude Martineau, educator, historian, author and playwright, who writes in Haitian Creole.

Peniel danced and drummed to the seated artists, each time drawing the recipient into the performance area, dancing to and around the honoree before actually bestowing the award.

With drummer Frisner Augustin, after beckoning him onto the “stage,” Peniel handed over his drum to the honoree who didn’t lose a beat sharing a little piece of his mastery with the audience. Before leaving the stage, Frisner, bowing in traditional form, saluted each performing drummer.

Peniel’s students are of all ethnicities, ages and levels; his early evening classes are at various Manhattan dance studios and on Sunday afternoon he teaches at The Ailey Extension, the location of the dance recital.

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