Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Serving the Spirit of the Dance: A Study of Jean-Léon Destiné, Lina Mathon Blanchet, and Haitian Folkloric Traditions

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Serving the Spirit of the Dance: A Study of Jean-Léon Destiné, Lina Mathon Blanchet, and Haitian Folkloric Traditions

Article excerpt

The American public's introduction to ritualistic Haitian dance has primarily been via non-Haitians such as Katherine Dunham-cultural anthropologist, writer, and internationally renowned dancer-and Maya Deren-dancer and chronicler of Vodou traditions. Dunham integrated modern, African, and Haitian dance forms into her innovative and respected "Dunham Technique" in the 1940s. Deren's film Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti and accompanying 1953 text documented the spiritual elements and dance forms that Vodouisants use as a means of maintaining a sacred and dynamic connection to die Lwa, the spiritual mediators between humans and the all-encompassing divine Bondye. Deren's contribution continues to be influential despite the decades that have passed.

However, Dunham and Deren were not the only ones building bridges between Haitian culture and arts in the Americas, the West Indies, and the world. Haiti's Bureau of Ethnology was created to reestablish a positive national and global Haitian cultural identity in the wake of the United States occupation of Haiti (from 1915 to 1934). The bureau was also created "to inventory, classify, and conserve ethnological and archaeological pieces, and to report on its work in a bulletin."1 In the 1960s, Haitianborn dancer Jean-Léon Destiné, previously one of Dunham's principal dancers, was asked to direct the bureau's folkloric dance group, La Troupe Folklorique Nationale. Destiné and his troupe of hand-picked dancers were cultural ambassadors, reminding the world that Haiti was a site of beauty, emanating sacred and secular art forms, not just a geography scored by violence and political upheaval. As cultural attaché, Destiné was able to teach, perform, and disseminate Haitian folklore and culture beyond his homeland through the accessible medium of dance.

In his formative years, prior to dancing with Dunham, Destiné studied with Lina Mathon Blanchet, founder of the first Haitian dance troupe to celebrate folklore and song. Blanchet's contribution to the dance world is seldom acknowledged beyond Haiti's borders, but her influences are far-reaching.2

This essay will examine how Haitians like Jean-Léon Destiné and Lina Mathon Blanchet contributed to preserving folkloric traditions in Haiti by transmuting their country's culture, history, and religious practices into dance and performance. Their work introduced the American public (and some Haitians) to the positive aspects of Haitian art, culture, Vodou, and dance.

LINA MATHON BLANCHET (1902-1993)3

In "The Song of Freedom: Vodou, Conscientization, and Popular Culture in Haiti," Gerdès Fleurant writes that

[the end of] World War II and the opening of the 1949 Bi-Centennial Exhibition in Port-au-Prince contributed to spark a tourist explosion, so to speak, which in turn led to a renaissance in the arts and folklore of Haiti; in 1949, a brand new city was built on the seashore of the capital to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of Port-au-Prince.4

Fleurant argues that this celebration of Haiti's folklore and dance was already occurring in the early 1940s, prompted in part perhaps by the backlash against "the anti-superstitious campaign of the Elie Lescot government that, in 1942, banned Vodun ceremonies, Mardi Gras and Rara festivals, under the pretext that they were relics of savagery inherited from Africa."5 The Bi-Centennial Exhibition and the burgeoning "folklorique" movement around Haiti provided artists, performers, and singers opportunities to be actively involved in celebrating their culture.

Lina Mathon Blanchet was a "pioneering Haitian folkloric dance artist, pianist and composer."6 Blanchet's affinity for music was apparent at an early age. By the 1930s, Blanchet was using and transposing folkloric musical scores, incorporating these traditions into her piano performances. As a teacher, she introduced her voice and piano students to Haitian folkloric traditions, advancing the Haitian renaissance movement in her community. …

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