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WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WELL?

Kriyol Dance! Collective debuting 'Rasin San Bout' at Williams College Museum of Art

New work explores how politics and acculturation influence the health of Haitian immigrants

Kriyol Dance! Collective

Kriyol Dance! Collective will perform at Williams College Museum of Art on Aug. 4.

WILLIAMSTOWN — On the walls of Williams College Museum of Art, Haitian artist Frantz Zephirin’s paintings depict passages and transformation, connections between the physical and spiritual worlds of his Vodou practice.

Kriyol Dance! Collective (KDC) explores passages on a more earthly plane through the adversity of human migration, and the enduring, generational impact this has on minds and bodies.

These two worlds speak to each other on Aug. 4 when Brooklyn, N.Y.-based KDC presents a 45-minute new work “Rasin San Bout” (Endless Roots) at the museum, followed by a talk back and patio reception.

KDC founder Veroneque Ignace left her Haitian immigrant family and Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush to study at Williams College.

“[Even] in the dead of winter I could still see the beauty of the campus; and, being of Caribbean heritage, nature is everything,” she said during a recent phone interview.

For four years, the chemistry major performed dances from Africa and the African Diaspora with Kusika, a dance and drumming ensemble led by Sandra Burton, Lipp Family Director of Dance at Williams College.

Through artistry and scholarship, Ignace received Williams’ Hubbard Hutchinson Fellowship in Dance, a $22,000 award which helped launch KDC back in Brooklyn after she graduated in 2015.

Now she returns to her alma mater to debut a work that traverses her own worlds, exploring the impact of immigration, particularly Haitian, on wellness.

“I’m a Ph.D. student at SUNY School of Public Health, studying community health and policy,” Ignace said. “At Williams, my thesis work was interrogating the ways creative production and dance are beneficial to students of color, especially those sharing stories of inherited traumas. That is the foundation of all my work and my approach in public health, the understanding that we can use our cultural identities, what we learn from our families, to inform how we achieve good health and all-round wellbeing.”

“The key question KDC is always asking is, what does it mean to actually be well? All our creative work is centered there, that’s where my research lives.”

Drawn from a collective of some 14 performers, the four dancers appearing at WCMA include Marla Robertson, for years a mainstay of Williams’ dance ensembles. She has been with KDC since the beginning, Ignace said.

The three drummers from the Kriyol Vodou Band who will accompany the dancers are all Haitian or Haitian descended. “They’ve played in the largest Haitian groups on the global stage, and they help hold us together and play with traditional rhythm,” Ignace said.

“I‘m descended from a Haitian family but also Vodou practitioners. The role the drum plays is a line of communication from this physical space into a spiritual space. It can cross those boundaries and also hold the languages we’ve forgotten.”

Creating a dialogue with Zephirin’s artwork holds personal meaning for Ignace. When she was 3, her painter and sculptor father displayed altars he built alongside Zephirin’s work in a major museum exhibition.

When her father died in 2016, Ignace inherited leadership of her family’s Lakou in Port-au-Prince. “It’s a Vodou temple, a spiritual site and cultural hub, almost like a community center, that has been in our family since 1877,” she explained. “My dad’s art, his sculpting relates to that space, and now it’s my turn to take over and contribute to that legacy.”

Zephirin’s’ work is based on an understanding of Vodou, in terms of cosmology and the interactions between spirits and humans, she added. “Performing my work in the same space where this great artist is exhibited is really important and personal to me.”

In the new work, she explained, “there are four instances of choreographic work, and also poetry and drumming. It’s a three-part piece: ‘The Beginning,’ ‘Unrooted,’ and ‘The End’.”

Ignace sees the performance as part of a larger global picture. “The reality of Haiti right now is a lot of instability and unrest that has reached an all-time high,” she said. “We sometimes forget that everything that happens in the world impacts Haiti as well.”

And, while Haitians are one of the largest Caribbean immigrant populations in Flatbush, they face new displacement due to rapid neighborhood gentrification, she said.

“That impacts our ability to take care of people back home in Haiti. I want to make sure there is space to talk about it, especially in the Berkshires.”

KDC’s performance concludes WCMA’s three-part “Immersions” summer program series.

“We wanted to highlight the role that music and rhythm play in Frantz Zephirin’s work,” said Teal Baskerville, WCMA’s assistant curator of programs.“ The series’ goal is to celebrate and highlight connections between what’s on view and narratives that weave across them, telling a story that’s bigger than any one work.”

Burton suggested the museum invite Kriyol Dance! Collective.

“Veroneque and the collective have such a deep thought process,” Baskerville said, “thinking about dance and movement as a form of archiving and documenting.

“This piece is about migration and what it means to be well, and the health and wellness of migrants and immigrants. Despite the hardships, losses and exploitations suffered on that journey, “Rasin San Bout/Endless Roots” carries the source of strength; and this connective tissue that runs throughout that endures.”

Baskerville added, “As a Vodou priest, Frantz’s work is so colorful and rich, there’s a lot of transfiguration of deities into animals and scenes of ritual offerings where people are dancing. There’s a lot of gesture and motion and rhythm, so that was one element we wanted to draw out in a performance.”

The program series represents a growing commitment to presenting performative works at WCMA, Baskerville said. “Performing arts increasingly play an important role in museum practice, it’s a way we can extend our work out to the wider campus and form new avenues of collaboration.

“As a Williams alum, I love to work with other alums. That’s the beauty of what a college museum can do: we support students while they’re here in developing their practice, and [provide opportunities] to present alumni work. It’s going to be beautiful but also thought provoking. The performance is asking questions of the audience, and I’m really intrigued to see how they respond to it.”What: “Rasin San Bout” (Endless Roots) dance and drumming performance by Kriyol Dance! Collective (KDC)

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown

When: 5:30 p.m., Aug. 4. Reception follows at 6:30 p.m. on the patio. Galleries open until 8 p.m.

Admission: Free, no tickets needed.

More information: 413-597-2429, artmuseum.williams.edu

COVID protocols: Masks are required indoors.

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