Sylla is 36. A dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, he leads the Sylla Danse Académie (Sylla dance academy), which he founded in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to teach mostly Haitian traditional dance, but also to work on his own choreographs with his troupe. To create, Sylla finds inspiration in the lost dances of his ancestors and makes contemporary dance with strong Haitian features.
INTERVIEW – april 2017
How did you get involved in dance?
When I was a child, my parents sent us – my brother, my sisters and I – to Cayes, in the province, to spend there our three months vacation. After one month, my father took us back to Port-au-Prince. As it was holiday time there was no child around to play with. But my older sister had dance classes. One day she said, “come with me” and she took me to her dance practice. The teacher told me, “here there’s no observer, you have to dance”. So I danced! I feel that dance called me. If I had to choose an activity myself, I wouldn’t have chosen dance for sure! But dance chose me.
I started dancing in 1995, so I’ve been dancing for twenty-two years. When I started, I was working on a show I was meant to participate in. We were twenty-two dancers and I had to do the entry scene. But I ended up not dancing in the show. And uglier dancers than me took part in it! But the teacher had excluded me. So I questioned myself. I decided, maybe I didn’t dance this time, but next time I would be one of the star dancers. I worked hard and one day I danced in that show. Out of twenty-three pieces, I danced twenty-one. That became an essential source of motivation. It allowed me to keep going on; I told myself, I do have a place here, I have something to offer.
How did you discover the various Haitian traditional dances?
When I was twenty-two I started exploring the country for three years. From Cap-Haïtien to Gonaïves, to Saint-Marc and more, I met with people and I discovered their dances. I slept in lakou [rural organizational structures linked to traditional vodou culture], in Souvenans, Badio and Soukri [three vodou holy sites in Gonaïves]. I realized that the way one dances in Port-au-Prince and the way people danced in these areas were different. Dancers, sometimes children younger than me, taught me how to dance in their own way. These techniques encouraged me to further work in the traditional dance field, because they are disappearing. Traditional dances don’t get taught to the youth. The children are shown some movements on some rhythms, so people say they are taught traditional dance… But these are not really the traditional rhythms.
How did you come from the traditional world to contemporary dance?
I was invited to lead a workshop in Canada. There, I discovered contemporary dance, and I became interested in it. I thought there’s no essential difference between dances and rhythms from Haiti and from abroad. The only actual difference here is the use of tam-tams, that’s it. The real issue is the technical level. If one day I decide to start singing, well, everyone can sing! But there’s a specific way to sing. And similarly there’s a specific way to dance, which you absolutely need to learn at a dance school. Therefore in Canada I learned contemporary dance, with teachers.
Why is perpetuating the traditions important?
Continuing the traditions is essential, because they make our identity. If I ask you to draw a Haitian guy, what are you going to do? If you draw a Japanese character, you’ll draw them with Asian eyes and their culture. What’s about Haitian people, you’ll probably paint them in black; but besides that we are rather Americanized. We eat like Americans. In the past we had the cassava, the corn, etc. But today we only use wheat and imported products. But despite all this, if you want to paint Haiti, you are going to paint our music, our dance, our food. To me, that’s what makes a people. Through his dance you can recognize a Haitian person.
We have the kompa, the popular dance, but we also have all these traditional dances: congo, ibo, nabo… which don’t get danced in the bars. And all this belongs to vodou. However, at school you see parents who refuse their children to be taught folk dances. It’s a debate and a fight. I strive to make people understand that these dances have to be taught at school, from kindergarten to secondary school. If we start teaching teenagers and young adults, it’s too late, they already have their own habits. We have to start with the children. I started dancing at thirteen, and I believe it was already too late.
So that’s my mission, I want to teach traditional dance at school. I already started. I have partnerships with four college schools. And I’m not going to content myself with that while complaining that nothing happens! One has to work hard.
How do you see you creative work in relation to your will to preserve traditions?
Using my own feeling, I mix modern, contemporary and traditional Haitian dance forms. My dancers can dance yanvalou, which is modern, as well as traditional dances. They just have to change their perspective.
When you are an artist, you can’t stay confined in one field. I can’t require my dancers to only dance traditional dances. We have to know how to dance these dances that make our culture. But at the same time we have to be open-minded. You have to know what’s happening in this globalized world; we have access to the world. I am interested in all dance forms. I mix them to suggest something new, and to discuss it. If a contemporary dance enthusiast discovers our work, he’s going to feel how we understand traditional dance. We make it evolve. That doesn’t mean purely traditional dance isn’t right. But only, it is automatic. Whereas the dance I make is intense.
How do audiences receive your creation?
Quite badly! It is difficult to change audiences’ apprehension towards contemporary dance. When I look at History, I understand that if you want to change things you have to impose them. So we start imposing our way of dancing. I can’t be required to dance as my ancestors did. I would do it, before. But many things have changed. Everyone has his or her own understanding of the world. In every action, there’s a part of the person who did it. And in my creation work, there’s a part of myself. I expose my own understanding of dance.
What is dance to you?
Dance is me! And dance is you, it’s all of us. To me, dance starts where imitation ends. I don’t like imitating others. That’s why I mix modern and contemporary aspects. When you dance the ibo, there’s only one way to dance. But I don’t want to stay confined to ibo. I have feelings, I want to say something. I have to go beyond these limitations.
How do you envision Haitian dance in the future?
Today, Haitian dance barely exists. There are only few dance schools like mine. Parents send their kids for them to have fun, rather than to learn Haitian culture. And even some of these teachers don’t really know the dances they teach. So I think the future of dance is very unsure.
When you go to a show, you see five percent of traditional dance, and the rest is modern-jazz or contemporary dance… I’m not against these dances, but I believe that if you present something to an audience, you have to show something original, a dance that you can claim yours. Once again, the future of Haitian dance is unsure. That’s why we have to teach dance, music, painting at school. Nowadays in the kindergartens the kids don’t learn traditional chants but French songs!
I do believe some of my students can take on. But the economic and social aspects are too strong. Girls dance, but once they have a family women stay at home with their children. Only men continue to dance, and that’s a shame. Maybe these youths will secure the future of dance, but I can’t be sure of it.
There is no financial support for the cultural field. All we produce, we do it with our own resources. I have no idea what the Ministry of Culture does! Not only dance, but culture in general is endangered. There is no spontaneous generation of artists. You have to give them a taste for culture. And to do this, you have to produce shows, which demand huge resources. There is no longer any performance hall here. There are only hotels and convention centers; each time you perform there you have to set up a stage, lights, everything. And this doesn’t even give you the same quality as in a theater. You have to rent the space, the stage, the manager, the lights… All of this is expensive.
Can you tell us about the creation you are working on?
I am working on the way to use numbers in dance and to make combinations with numbers. I can’t tell you much because this project is in the making. I plan to concretely start the creation process in Martinique during an exchange program I am participating in in June 2017.
I create as my dancers dance, during my working sessions with them. It’s a feeling I acquired with my own teachers. I don’t do the creation on one side and the directing on the other side; instead I create while I work with them. The dancers give me their feeling too. If a dancer is physically or morally exhausted, then I can’t create either. It’s a vibration. In Creole we say: “fok mayonese la, matche” [literally, the mayonnaise has to start being well mixed, meaning: it has to kick off]. There has to be a permanent contact between the choreographer and his artists. There is absolute concentration during these sessions.
Do you have a message for the world?
“In the beginning was the verb, and the verb was God”. All that moves, dances. Each country has its own culture. We have to preserve all this richness. I don’t have any issue with the West essentially, but the West invades us too much. There has to be more of us who work on preserving the traditions. It’s our parents’ legacy. The caves, the lakou, the monuments… we have to preserve this heritage. They shouldn’t be profaned. I am a dancer, so I tell you, dance! When you appreciate life, you dance! And to me, dance is my life. In Creole, I tell you: dansé dansé !
PORTFOLIO – AT SYLLA DANCE ACADEMY