Haiti is an independent republic located on the western part of Hispaniola Island, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. The population numbers about eight million people of whom 70% live in poverty and 50% are illiterate. Port- au-Prince is the country’s capital and largest city. French and Haitian Creole are Haiti’s two official languages since 1987.
Haiti is influenced by many different cultures, such as the Arawak, who were the original inhabitants, a number of African countries, Spain, France, North America, and others, resulting in a country of great cultural diversity. Haitian dance is accompanied by powerful music and is a unique movement experience. The Voodoo cosmology is an influential factor. The dances and rituals appeared in order to try and preserve sacred and social forms of art, customs and beliefs in response to the harsh working and living conditions of slavery. The African American anthropologist and dance pioneer Katherine Dunham, studied Haitian voodoo and dance in general to develop the celebrated "Dunham technique". In 1947 she wrote "The Dances of Haiti, their social organization, classification, forms and functions. "
Despite all the obstacles Haitian artists face in a country like Haiti, where artists are not socially recognized, contemporary dance is making its appearance thanks mainly to the work of choreographer Jeanguy Saintus, co-founder of Ayikodanse Company, created in 1989.
Jeanguy Saintus heads the Artcho Danse School and the Dansepyenu Theatre Studio. With the intention of opening contemporary dance to all, he also initiated the Dansepyenu project, which hosts workshops for talented young people without financial resources.
The Studio Theater at Artcho Danse Dansepyenu and the space at the Fokal-Knowledge and Freedom Foundation, are the only two spaces in Haiti that program contemporary dance and hold activities such as training and research workshops, conferences, etc.
During the summer of 2007 the Danse Artcho space hosted the Regional Research Laboratory and Choreographic Exchange "The Body mirror of time" that brought together around twenty choreographers from the Caribbean region with the aim of offering a space-time for work, meetings and exchange. This initiative spurred the beginning of a collective reflection on what Caribbean contemporary dance currently is. In 2008 Danse Artcho also hosted the itinerant performances of the award-winning companies of the Caribbean Contemporary Dance Biennale, which was held in March of the same year under the auspices of the Caribes en Creation project of the French agency Culturesfrance.
There are other places where dance is taught, such as the RMT Academy of Dance, the Dance Center Jean-Rene Delsoin, the Institute of Dance Lynn Williams Rouzier, the Folkloric Ballet of Haiti, Haiti Tchako Dance, and the Joelle Donatien Belot Dance School, the latter two of which only offer courses in traditional dances, jazz and classical ballet.
The only institutions that offer some assistance, however minimal, are the French Institute, Fokal – the Knowledge and Freedom Foundation, and the SCAC - Service for Cooperation and Cultural Action of the French Embassy. The French Institute organizes a high quality annual cultural program and supports artistic and cultural development through artist residencies, aid for co-productions and dissemination. Fokal on the other hand supports cultural production, creation, dissemination, and guidance for students and academics on their projects. The SCAC offers scholarships and facilitates exchange projects between France and Haiti.
Text by Isabel Ferreira and Mélanie Fréguin, July 2009 In collaboration with Jeanguy Saintus