Even though we tried hard, it was difficult for Peniel Guerrier and me to meet face to face for this interview. Our schedules led us to opposite parts of the country, so we planned a telephone call that would be recorded and transcribed. We ended up having two conversations between New York and Massachusetts and a quick follow-up on the phone from the airport as Guerrier left for Germany in late October.
Guerrier is an energetic and ambitious Haitian dancer. I had met him before, when he visited Smith College, where I was teaching. On that occasion I had observed Peniel’s playful yet demanding style of instruction, but I was particularly interested in his choreography as the newest Haitian dancer on the college campus circuit. I was also deeply interested in what he would bring to the public discussion of Haiti. I had heard that he was taking over the direction of Dr. Gerdès Fleurant’s performance ensemble at Wellesley College, near Boston, and I wondered how Peniel would manage also living and teaching in New York. Like many in the Haitian dance community, Guerrier works exceedingly hard physically, not only in his dancing, but also in traveling to multiple cities to create sufficient employment. In our wide-ranging conversation, we focused on his artistic goals and what Haiti means to him and the dance community as a whole.
Yvonne Daniel Bonjour, comment ça va?
Peniel Guerrier Ça va bien.
YD Let’s start by talking about your dance company, Tamboula, about you and your training, how you came to the world of dance in Haiti, and then maybe we can make some connection with Haiti and the U.S. I’d like to go into a little depth in two areas: your artistic goals, what your choreographies mean to you; and Haiti itself, what it means for you, an artist, and how artists are managing in Haiti.
PG Okay, so what is the first question?
YD (laughter) What does your company’s name, tamboula, mean?
PG Well, tamboul means “drum” and la means “there” in Kreyol, so tamboula means the drum is always there—in life and in death. In between is dance. Always the drum is everywhere. The first contact means we can all share in the rhythm wherever we are from; the last contact is drum and death. Doesn’t matter what language we speak—me Kreyol, you Spanish, we can share this together. Whatever is good, you see in the drum; it’s always there.
YD How long have you had the company?
PG I have had it since 1996, but Fritz Dublan began it in 1975. A long time ago.
YD And how many dancers do you have in the company, and musicians? Or do you have people who dance and play drums as well?
PG Yeah, we have 20 dancers and about ten musicians, depending on the type of performance. We have drummers and singers too.
YD Wow! Tell me, do your musicians also dance?
PG A little bit. (laughter)
YD How did those musicians and dancers train, and how did you find your dancers in Haiti?
PG Sometimes I have dancers from Jacmel or Cap-Haitien or from the countryside, with no training. They come from their own cultural experience, but most are my students from the honors university, L’École Nationale des Arts. Since I am a teacher there, the administration allows me to use the studio space on the weekends and holidays, so I use it most of the time for Tamboula’s rehearsals.
YD So you pull from your student population and use the school space to develop your company.
YD When I was doing my work in Haiti in the 1970s, there were several schools of dance, and the National Theater was giving classes in dance as well. Katherine Dunham also had some classes, but the main teachers were Lavinia Williams and Odette Weiner. And then Vivienne Gualtier. I know Lavinia has passed on, but is Odette still alive?
PG She’s dead. Vivienne is still alive; we work together sometimes.
YD Who else is teaching now?
PG Jolie Coeur teaches traditional dance, very good teacher. Nocole Lumarque does traditional and modern; Jean-Guy Saintus has a company called Artcho, and he does more modern and some traditional also.
YD So they are sending students from their private studios to the national company for training?
PG Yes, sometimes. All the teachers work together so we all produce everything, but we are all different in a way.
YD Is Herve Maxi still there?
PG You know Maxi?
PG Yeah, he’s my teacher! My brother!
YD Oh! When I was last dancing in Haiti, he was going for an operation on his knee in Canada. Probably he is not
dancing now, right?
PG A little bit. He’s in Canada.
YD So you come from that professional descendancy, from Maxi. Impressive. (laughter)
PG When were you with him?
YD In Haiti, at the school. I was in Haiti mostly summers, or in January or for the Christmas break. I began my research there. Tell me something about the dances you do in your company. Is the repertoire the traditional dances of Haiti that we have come to know in this country?
PG Our repertoire has 22 choreographies; each is the story of a spirit, also a dance: Yanvalou, Congo, Petwo, parigol, cumbit, African, mayí, Rangol, and so on.
YD Which dances are you programming now?
PG Our mission is to promote the culture, so we do more traditional dances, but I should tell you more about my personal style. I try to make not only traditional Haitian dance, but also a little bit of African stuff and modern material.
YD So the dances you do would be like the dances that most people know from Haiti. The dances of Vodou, but also the secular dances from agricultural festivals and things like that.
PG We do affranchis and rabordaoyi too.
YD These are contre danse forms that show the European influence in Haitian history, right?
YD I was looking at the pictures on the web page that you have, and I was wondering whether you were trying to show the differences between the African ethnic groups that are in Haiti. You have some Fon/Dahomey costumes, and then you have some Congo costumes. How do you show the audiences that you are performing these distinct ancient African histories in Haiti?
PG Notes on the program give the stories of all the choreographies. Some are Fon/Dahomey; others are Congo. Petwo is separate; some steps look the same, but not really. Ti-Congo can mix with Petwo, and Petwo fran has more shoulder movement. I use different colors because all dances have different spirits, so each spirit has his or her different color.
YD When you perform in Haiti are you performing for Haitian audiences or for international audiences that come to Haiti?
PG Well, we perform for international as well as local meetings, workshops, different things.
YD When I was there, the dance companies used to rotate among the hotels: Oloffson’s, Ibo Lele, Villa Creole. The hotels would cycle the dance companies around.
PG They don’t do that now. It’s not easy to go out after midnight. You have to be finished by eight or nine PM. It’s very complicated now.
YD The outside world hears about the internal warfare that’s going on against the presidency, or against the economic conditions of Haitians. And then we hear about hurricanes and mudslides and the ongoing sickness. It’s very difficult for people in the arts, I imagine. And now you say there’s a curfew and you can’t perform except for certain times.
YD Still, somehow, I think artists in every country do somewhat better than the average person, you know? They have a little bit more outside contact and they can maximize their abilities to speak for their people while trying to earn a living.
So tell me, you’re working a lot in the United States and I know you’re teaching classes. Where are you teaching classes in New York?
PG I teach three classes at Djoniba, a studio on 18th St. And one more in downtown Brooklyn, at Charles Moore studio. I have about 15 to 30 people in a class.
YD Haitian dance is big, especially when the class is given by a Haitian. And you tour. You’ve come up to Massachusetts, where I was living, with the Bamidele dancers, Marilyn Middleton and Sekou Sylla. Has that helped you gain more students, and also more opportunities where institutions will hire you in the States?
PG Well, in Massachusetts, Bamidele Company tours to many schools. So it’s a different kind of tour.
YD But I imagine you need both studio teaching and performance tours.
PG Both, both! (laughter)
YD And when you tour, you get to make connections, and then maybe a school or theater brings you back, and you can do even more studio classes because people who saw you on tour might come to your studio in New York.
PG Yeah, that’s my idea. (laughter)
YD So if you make enough income in the States—say, between September and December—does that make it possible for you to go back to Haiti and perform there?
PG I go back anytime. I go when they call me. I’m working with Bacoulou, Odette Weiner’s company. We just went to Hungary. It’s a complicated situation. When they call me, I try to go.
YD When you do go back to Haiti and perform, what kind of choreographies do you make to sensitize people about what’s going on in Haiti or how Haitians feel? Am I making my questions too long?
PG No, that’s fine.
YD I’m trying to figure out, you know, how are things? How are artists doing in Haiti?
PG It’s very difficult. I am thinking about how to make a choreography about what is happening now. We can’t go out after dark. We make our own costumes; we use candles and kerosene lamps for lights; and we have to have everything we need for the drums. But we must keep going. In the US, it’s my mission, a Haitian mission, to keep promoting Haiti. I keep teaching and touring. For example, I have possibilities in Boston, next week Tamboula goes to Germany, and I am working with Haitian singer Emeline Michel to see what we can do together. We don’t have agents or people like that. We do everything ourselves. We have to just keep on.
YD Do you rely on the Haitian Vodou belief?
YD So in every type of choreography it always comes back to the stories, the stories of the spirits?
PG The choreographies can explain many different stories. For instance, right now it is late October and I am doing dances for Halloween and the Day of the Dead. We are working on one with a spider and one with an owl, both are spirits and correspond to different rhythms. But with all of these dances there are many different variations.
YD But didn’t you learn first, not in school, but first about dance and music from the Vodou community?
YD I would have thought most Haitians learn to dance, and, really, do all of the arts: they learn how to sew the sequins on the drapo and to make beautiful vévé on the walls of the temple, and they learn to dance and play the drums early because of their connection to their spiritual life. I have seen you teach a couple of times, but I haven’t seen your company perform and I wanted to find out a little more about your choreography. When you see your country now, devastated in a number of ways this year, what kind of choreography would you make for this moment in Haiti?
PG There are some choreographies for the seasons. There is one choreography called la siren. It’s la siren when you go to the river; it’s a shower, and you can use it for the spring or summer. Right now, when something is bad, you are supposed to do something like a Yanvalou, or Nago or Petwo. We need a strong dance now. Yanvalou shows how Haiti is supposed to be. Nago is a strong dance, that’s Haiti’s fight. Petwo is almost the same as Nago. Congo or Rara—this is Haiti and the life you have to enjoy here.
YD That’s beautiful. This brings me to something else. You do field research for some of the dances. I did some research in Soukr Danache, and I noticed that you did some there and at Lakou Souvenans.
YD When I went to Soukr Danache it was in 1991. It was what I call the real independence, the 200th anniversary of Vodou, because in 1991 it was 200 years after the first rebellion and the beginning of the revolution. To me, this year, 2004, is the 200th anniversary of when the international community accepted Haiti, but really, Haiti was free earlier. In 1991, Aristide was very popular, and he gave a big celebration for the 200th anniversary of Vodou. Like many people, I went to Bwa Kayiman, where the revolt was originally initiated. I did not participate so much, but I observed. All of the Vodou groups came from all over the country and had their anniversary celebration. And then, somebody said there was going to be a Congo celebration, and we went up to Soukr Danache, which is a ritual site where Congo heritage is celebrated in a spectacular communal river bathing every summer. It was my first time in Soukr Danache. I’ve been to Bwa Kayiman, and other places in Haiti a lot, but not in Soukr Danache. I filmed a very, very beautiful ancestral ceremony for my video, “Public Vodou Ceremonies in Haiti.” So I’m wondering. What did you do in Soukr Danache and Souvenans? Was your research about that Congo community there?
PG No these are different, not just Congo. In Soukr Danache, it is Congo and they do a special, more easy, Congo. Sometimes they call it ti-congo; ti means small.
YD And then in Souvenans, they do what?
YD Did you come back with a dance based on Soukr or Souvenans?
PG Not really. What I took were some steps from the two places.
YD Are you putting more tradition into your choreography?
PG I’m putting the steps into what I have now, let’s say—not a whole dance on Souvenans or Soukr.
YD I’m really feeling that you are a traditional choreographer who is showing the public Haitian culture in the sense of its spiritual connection, and you are not doing so much modern, contemporary dance.
PG Yeah, not so much modern.
YD But sometimes you can use traditional movement to talk about contemporary conditions or contemporary ideas.
PG Of course. So I’m trying to do a different thing. Usually I use the traditional and some African; I mix it all.
YD So is it in the style of Maxi?
PG Yeah a little bit Maxi and a little bit Peniel. (laughter)
YD Okay, I have a couple of small, silly questions. One is about music and instruments and drums. How do you keep your drums in tune in the Caribbean?
PG They stay in tune. They’re in tune with the family, and the conversation between the drums keeps them in tune together.
YD And are they still using drums that are tied with the cord?
YD And you are not using any modern LP drums from the United States?
PG No, no, no, no, I don’t like it. Only traditional drum.
YD Well, let’s see—another topic. I know in other places of the Caribbean, like in Martinique and Puerto Rico, for the last five, ten years, there have been the beginnings of artists’ cooperatives, a coming together. One of these is for Caribbean women dancers, what has kept them together is trying to help one another and to help the situation of dance. So I want to know, is something happening in Haiti to help dancers? Are you trying to find ways for everyone to have better dance opportunities? Do you have a cooperative like the one that Haitian visual artists have had in the past? Do you have a cooperative of any kind that helps share some of the resources and share the opportunities and maybe to build a place for Haitian dancers in Haiti?
PG We need that, but we don’t have it. Our biggest problem now is space that is meant for dance. The only one now is downtown, close to the presidential palace, and people are scared to go there.
YD It needs a lot of repairs.
PG Yeah, and people are afraid to go there.
YD Is there any space outside Port au Prince, like in Jérémie or in Cap-Haitien?
YD So the conditions in Haiti are really hard?
PG Really hard.
YD You seem to have been working in the States since 1995. Are you connected to any dancers in France or the other French-speaking islands, in Guadalupe or in Martinique?
PG Yeah. I just met one Jamaican who’s in a company in Martinique. She was picked by my company.
YD How about in France, or other African countries? Since you’ve been in the States, are you making connections with other Africans?
PG Actually, I meet more Africans than Caribbeans—from Guinea, Senegal …
YD You mentioned that you teach African dances too, and have you had that experience in your training?
PG We Africans and Haitians share something …
YD Do you call it by the same name?
PG Not the same name.
YD But when you hear that rhythm and then you see it danced, you can tell that same thing.
PG I feel that.
YD When I went to Benin, three or four years ago, I went into the countryside and they were dancing; they had a ceremony. What I saw was Haitian dance! So I danced with them. And they were doing what I would call a mayí and then they would do Yanvalou. They would be surprised and glad when I danced, but also they would laugh. They thought it was so funny, an American dancing their dances, you know?
PG (laughter) Yeah.
YD But I found the same thing, too. The drums were different for me; they looked different and sounded slightly different, but the basic rhythms were so similar to what I knew from Haiti.
PG They looked different, but also it might be the tempo. One dance called parigol is mayí—really the same movement. It’s not exactly the same—in parigol, you put your feet back and in mayí, you cross your feet—but it’s a different tempo with almost the same movement. Mayí is fast; parigol is slower.
YD Much slower, yeah. Well, that’s the difference. Sometimes the quality changed when it came across the ocean. And then sometimes, maybe people didn’t remember as well. When they tried to remember, maybe it came out slightly differently—between Benin and Nigeria to Haiti. For me, Haiti has more of the West African traditional dances than any of the other Caribbean islands.
PG Yes, that’s true.
YD And I’m sure that’s because they were cut off politically so early.
PG Yeah, what I have found from Africans, they are in tune with Haitians. Many dances, as you say, share the same movements between Africa and Haiti, but might have a different rhythm and a different name. The ones that made it to Haiti, there are many more.
YD Well, Africa is a huge continent with so much. Only a little bit survived here. But I think the African material that survived here from the slave era survived mostly in Haiti. In Cuba they have something similar to Haitian Rada; they call it Arará. Now it’s one of the smallest groups of African heritages. Arará is well known in Cuba. I mean, it’s deep in Cuba, but it’s only a portion. In Haiti, it’s widespread; it has a fuller range.
I want to find out a little bit about where you are performing and what your schedule is now. Where can people come to see your work?
PG In November, in Boston—it’s not set up yet, but I am hoping for a big place. I am also teaching now at Wellesley College, near Boston. I am directing a music and dance ensemble called Yanvalou there, and I’m sure that in December we will do something for the end of the semester. We don’t have our dates yet. And I have initiated a New York company, Tamboula 2, and I am organizing a band, Band Kongo.
YD You are truly a hard worker. I guess you are off to Germany first and then you will be very busy with performance plans. But listen, I really admire the fact that despite all the things that are going on in Haiti, and despite all the complications of being an artist, Haitians are still trying to go forward in this world as artists. It’s so hard! Even in the United States, where we have more access to money and space—
PG Yeah, everything.
YD And training and all that, there on an island where not that many people get the opportunity to have education, much less education in the arts … It’s a big success story to see people like you. And it’s been happening for decades, Haiti’s artists have been waging the same artistic and economic struggles—les maîtres Jean-Léon Destiné, Louines Louinis, Fritzner Augustin, Bonga, Dr. Gerdès Fleurant—and the younger generation, like you and Julio Jean and Nadine—I am in awe of the consistency that it takes and the determined effort.