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Rated: E · Other · Drama · #1067642
An application of Haitian Dance to the play "Once On This Island"
Greetings from Springfield, Missouri. I received your letter asking for information about the Haitian dance traditions, to help you choreograph your upcoming production of Once on This Island. I think that it is very admirable that you are trying to demonstrate Haitian culture in your production. Many theatre troupes that have attempted this production have paid no attention to the historical context of this script, so your contextual choice is very impressive. In order to investigate the dances that should be included in this script, you should consider the deep Voodoo (or Vodoun) traditions in Haiti, as well as the traditions in dance from Africa, where Haiti's culture originated, and the Carribean in general. These aspects have all combined to form the Haitian dance tradition, thus, all should be considered when choreographing this production.
Since the Haiti's population originally came over as slaves from Africa, this is a tradition that should be carefully examined first in order to understand the roots of Haitian dance. African dance, a lot of emphasis is put on gymnastic abilities, such as "leaps, lunges, whiplike turns, pumping arms and pounding legs, handsprings, somersaults, and more." (Traiger) This is something that should be taken into special consideration when casting this production. There are many instances in the script, such as "We Dance" where the actor's gymnastic abilities could be put to use, perhaps incorporating a sort of competition between people to see who could perform the most impressive gymnastics. Leaps are more prevalent in African dance than some other gymnastic activities. They're involved in ceremonies such as wedding dances. (Gonzalez) Leaps are also easier to teach to amateur dancers. This could be useful in dances that involve the entire cast, since a multitude of talented gymnasts may not be available to you, since you are working with volunteers. Leaps can be used, as they are in wedding dances, to portray things that aren't human. In the dance, they are birds, but in your production, you may want to use leaps to portray other things. For example, just before Ti Moune and Daniel meet, Agwe summons a storm, singing "And let there be...Rain1," then the stage directions say that the "Storytellers enter and create rain; Ti Moune dances with Them." This rain could be basically demonstrated by Storytellers in rain-like costumes performing leaps across the stage. This would give the song a driving force, and help contribute to pacing, while you could add other elements, perhaps involving Storytellers surrounding the car to make Daniel crash.
Along with these leaps, African and Haitian dancers often imitate animals, leaping about wildly. (African Dance) In this production, along with the representation of rain, birds appear several times, as well as trees and other natural things. This occurs specifically in "One Small Girl," the stage directions say that "The Storytellers form a tree with their bodies, and Little Ti Moune climbs up into it." Later in the same song, the Storytellers sing as birds. Later, in "Mama Will Provide," a Storyteller (Armand) says
"And as Ti Moune set out
She realized
She was walking with old friends.
Storyteller (Andrea)
The birds...
Storyteller (Papa Ge)

The trees...
Storyteller (Armand)
The Frogs!...
Storyteller (Erzulie)
And the breezes..."
All of these non-human characters should be portrayed by the actor's bodies. Normally, this would accompany wild movement, but in this case, the characters aren't very wild animals, so they should be portrayed as they really are; graceful, and flowing. This should be accomplished in whatever way the actors see fit, since there is no real formula for imitating animals, it merely involves the actor's interpretation of the animal, or plant, or what have you. (African Dance) Masks are also used to indicate an actor's characters, or the spirits represented by the actors. These symbols sometimes help convey a moral, as they do in this story, and the masks should reflect this. (African Dance) The masks are spirits, so they don't need to be exact replicas of the thing that they're representing. Rather, they should be representations of the true "spirit" of a bird, or a tree, or whatever you are. These masks could help the audience discern what the Storytellers are portraying, especially if the Storytellers change characters. Masks would naturally be easier to switch than costumes, so that would probably be a method that would be useful to you in your production.
African dance is also very percussive, something that has characterized it both in African settings, and in the Caribbean. Much of this percussion is from the drums of Africa and the Caribbean. You'll need to make sure that these drums; Djembes, Sabar, Ewe, etc. are utilized in your performance, along with more Haitian drums like the Tanbou, Manman, and Segon, or others. (Bongocentral.com, bongamusic.com) These drums aren't the only percussion used in African dance, though. Some of the percussion comes from the actors themselves. They stomp, and clap to give their dances rhythm. (Campbell) This almost Stomp-like percussion could be well-utilized as back-up in songs like Ti Moune's Dance. The Storytellers could provide the percussion to back up Ti Moune's dancing; providing a link to her peasant roots, while she dances for the Grad Hommes. This will help use all of the possible musical and physical aspects of the dance, and will tie them all together.
These African dance traditions traveled to the Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean through slave trade, this is why so many of the African traditions survive in Haiti today, but the Caribbean islands adjusted the old African traditions in their own ways. Each of these evolutions of dance technique effects the others. Since they are so close to one another, the traditions cross over from country to country, and so, a look at Caribbean dance in general will provide a good basis for your choreography. A lot of Caribbean dance revolves around religion, which I will talk more about later, and other aspects, including the use of pantomime, should be useful to you.
First, some basic aspects of Caribbean dance that could e useful to you: in Caribbean dance, groups of people are often seen dancing in circles around a fire. (Caribbean Eye). The concept of a fire may not be safe to duplicate exactly on your stage, but some fire-like symbol should be used, then the Storytellers can dance around it, as people would often do in Caribbean ceremonies. This would be useful particularly in "We Dance." Perhaps the men and women could each sing a different part, and dance in intrinsic circles. The older women could form the middle circle, singing "Asaka, grow me a garden," with the men around them singing "Please, Agwe don't flood my garden," and around them could be the younger women singing "Erzulie, who will my love be?" Similar circles could be used in "Pray," to recreate Haitian religious ceremonies. Another popular form of Caribbean dance that has evolved is the Mambo and the Merengue. (Learntodance.com). These dances are particularly seductive, and could be used for love songs, or songs involving Erzulie, the flirtatious goddess of love, such as "Some Girls," or "Forever Yours."
Caribbean dance is also firmly based in pantomime. A wonderful example of this is the "Popular Theatre," which goes out into communities and tries to solve problems through dance. Dancers will try to express the problem trough rhythm and dance, and encourage common people to step in and try to adjust the dance so that the conflicts between them, or conflicts with their overlords, are solved. (Caribbean Eye) Pantomimed dances like these could be put to great use in this production, Especially in songs like "Mama Will Provide," and "Some Say," which show Ti Moune's journey from her home to the palace of the Beuxhomme; especially when the Storytellers sing "Some say her feet were bare/And the road was long and cruel./Some say/Some say she got a ride from a vendor and his mule," etc. That song goes on to describe many scenarios that could be reproduced through pantomime, as do many other songs. The end of the production offers another great chance for pantomime in "A Part of Us," where the Storytellers sing
"Erzulie took her by the hand,
And led her to the sea
Where Agwe wrapped her in a wave,
And laid her to her rest
And Papa Ge was gentle
As he carried her to shore
And Asaka accepted her
And held her to her breast,
Held her to her breast...
Storyteller (Mama)
And then, the gods blessed her, and transformed her into...
All
A tree!"
This portion could create a great chance for pantomime, and provides a chance for some originality in turning Ti Moune into a tree. You may have established a "tree" look by then, but, of course, Ti Moune's tree must be grander than all the other trees. Pantomime can be used in almost all of these songs, really, or in portions of them. In this production, it's almost necessary, since most of this production is music, so the story must be told through the songs and dances.

A woman who drew all of the forma of Caribbean dance together is Katherine Dunham. She originally had a passion for anthropology, but she gave that up for dance, when forced to choose between the two. Her master's thesis (now a book) was entitled The Dances of Haiti, so there can be no question that the "Dunham Method" of dance is a valid one to apply to this production. Dana McBroom-Manno's description of the Dunham method is: "You use the floor as earth, the pelvis as center, holding torso and legs together. You work for fluidity, moving like a goddess, undulations like water, like the ocean. High leaps for the men. You elongate the muscles, creating a hidden strength. We use both parallel and turned out, so it's easy to go from Dunham into any other technique. The isolations of the hips, fibs, shoulders that you see in all jazz classes were brought to us from the Caribbean by Miss Dunham." Some of this I've already discussed, such as the leaps that originated in Africa. Also, I told you that interpreting water, along with other non-human things is common in Haitian dance, but the "undulations" involved are something that was introduced to the rest of the world by Ms. Dunham. Another important part of her technique is the isolation of certain body parts, such as hips and arms, which helps to explain Haitian dance in a simpler way. (Perron) This type of movement would be useful in songs that are heavily involved in dancing, like Ti Moune's dance, or "We Dance."

Dunham's dances reflect Haitian Voodoo (or Vodou) religion a great deal. Once on This Island obviously requires a great deal of religious dancing, since the gods Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie, and Papa Ge watch over and control all that goes on in the story, and dancing is a very important part of Voodoo. According to Dunham, "In vaudun we sacrifice to the gods, but the top sacrifice is dance," (Perron). This is why there is so much dance involved in Voodoo. The gods love to dance, and regularly possess people, so if you aren't dancing before you're possessed, you will be afterward. Voodoo rituals involve dancing in circles around the poteau-mitan. (Paralumn.com) This dance is made up by the dancers as they go, and it builds in intensity until someone is possessed. (Religioustolerance.org) The possessed person may then fall to the floor, or start spinning in circles, or merely act like that god, or any number of other activities. Maybe the gods possess many people, or maybe it's just one special person. (Religioustolerance.org, news.nationalgeographic.com) Voodoo rituals aren't restricted by many rules. They usually consist of people acting like people.
This focus on freedom of expression is something that you'll have to keep in mind when casting this performance. Most of the cast will need to be able to improvise a dance based on the basic dance theories presented in this letter already. Some of this improvisation and feigned possession could be used in "Pray," through and after the "rain." This idea could also be applied to any of the group numbers, like "We Dance," or "Why We Tell the Story" as well.

Haiti's dancing techniques originated in many different places and times. From the African dance that came over with the slaves to the Caribbean dance that has been adopted from neighbors. Katherine Dunham shows this in her eclectic dance techniques, and Voodoo has influenced all of these types of dances a great deal, contributing to the similarities. You may not want to use traditional Haitian dance for the upper class's songs, like "The Sad Tale of the Beuxhomme," and "The Ball," to show the stark difference between the two worlds, but I hope that this information will be useful for the songs for which you plan on using Haitian dance techniques. I think that it's admirable that you are working so hard to preserve the traditions behind this story, and I look forward to seeing your production.

Glad to be of service,
© Copyright 2006 *Lainie* (whereismybook at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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