By a Waterfall: Children of Immigrants Chart a Path to the Sacred
In 1842 there was a massive earthquake in Haiti, and legend has it that the quake created a large waterfall, called Le Saut. The area surrounding it, called Saut-d’Eau (French for waterfall), or Sodo in Haitian Creole, has become a destination for pilgrims, both Catholics and practitioners of vodou, who visit the site during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, in mid-July.
Fifty years earlier, in the late 18th century, Haitians had mounted the only successful slave revolt in history, establishing the first independent black state in the Americas. The Catholic Church tried for years to suppress the effects of this rebellion, and French banks have strangled the nation’s economy for decades as a result of it; these tensions played out in Saut-d’Eau, where manifestations of miracles—like an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a tree—were suppressed by French priests concerned about superstitious practices. The priests promptly died, the Haitians took this as a kind of sacred vengeance, and the Catholic clergy have come to accept the pilgrimage, with its associated syncretic festivities, as a fact of Haitian life. A primary devotional activity is bathing in the waterfall.
Phyllis Galembo, a longtime observer of Haitian art and life, visited the site more than 20 years ago during the mid-summer festival, and photographed pilgrims cleansing their bodies and souls in the water. Her 2021 book, Sodo, inspired choreographer Gaspard Louis, whose BAC Open residency began in early June.
Gaspard, raised in Port-Au-Prince until his early teens, was transplanted to New Jersey by his Protestant mother, but he also went to his father’s Catholic church. “In fact,” he tells me, “I enjoyed it more than the Protestant church, because it was more fun and shorter. I didn't care much for the long hours of Sunday school. However, we were not allowed to appreciate the vodou religion, which I came to find out is the heartbeat of Haiti.”
His parents’ plans for him included safe and lucrative professions: law, medicine, or business. He always wanted to be an actor, but faced a language barrier; French and Creole were his first languages, and he came to English late. While a student at Montclair State, practicing martial arts, he was lured into performing in a dance show. The rest is history: after touring with ALLNATIONS Dance Company, based at New York’s International House, he made it into Pilobolus and spent 10 years there, finding along the way a wife, spending a few years in the business career his parents sought for him, and finally working his way back to the dance world.
He is fifty now and a father of two; he was born in the same year as Pilobolus, the company he joined as a fledgling dancer that supported him well for a decade. Now he’s director of Gaspard & Dancers and the choreographer of Sodo, the brand-new, beautiful duet he built in June in the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC, collaborating with performers Kevin Boateng and Marsha Guirlande Pierre, who dance the roles of a young couple visiting the falls to sanctify their relationship. Mahalia Stines, a Brooklyn-based Haitian Jew who practices vodou, is designing sets and costumes; he brought to her attention Galembo’s book of photographs. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s piano-and-violin score for the 17-minute piece incorporates Stines’ recitation in Haitian Creole of a text from the book, a poem by Jean Leopold Dominique.
This information does not begin to reveal the experience of witnessing the piece itself, and the process by which Gaspard fine-tunes the choreography and the performances by this dream team of dancers. Working five hours a day for 12 days, the three of them build the dance collaboratively, approaching it as a mutual responsibility rather than a top-down delivery of steps. Their movement creates a breeze in the room. I arrive in the middle of the process, on day seven, in time to watch and listen to Stines as she hovers in the studio with bags of material, feeling out the necessary textiles and props. On one edge of the performance space lies a circle of cloth on which rests an enamel bowl full of water, herbs, and berries; a simple mug; and a candle. Alongside this tableau is a little wooden chair with a cane seat. Stines sets out a dozen small battery-powered votives that are crucial to the final moments of the work.
“Let me just go make a fool of myself,” Gaspard mutters as he heads onto the dance floor to demonstrate, full out, what he wants the dancers to try. And then, as he clambers back up onto his feet, “Oh, Elizabeth, never get old.” I have 27 years on him, actually, so I know where he’s coming from; though the plastic chairs in the studio are among the best I’ve ever encountered, my body still seizes up after hours of sitting on one.
The two dancers are rarely still, taking the initiative to rehearse the complex choreography even when Gaspard is busy elsewhere. Fearless and independent, they slide, they somersault. She’s his protector, he her cavalier. They give each other space. They spiral around each other, their spines in constant, sinuous motion. She jumps onto his back; he sits on her knee. The pair direct themselves as Gaspard watches; it appears to be a joyous process.
Marsha, 25, is a compact, lively dancer, born in Trenton, New Jersey and raised primarily on the east coast of the U.S. by Haitian parents; her father insisted she learn Creole. Three years out of Montclair State, and experienced as a modern dancer with Limon and Carolyn Dorfman, she now lives in the Bronx and works as a yoga teacher and social media editor for a church. Kevin, 30, speaks Twe; his parents are from Ghana, and he lives in Dallas, commuting to rehearse with Gaspard, mostly in New York. He’s ballet-trained; his “dance mom,” he says, is Kihyoung Choi, a former member of the Korean National Ballet who now teaches in neighboring Fort Worth.
The work they are doing together is, I must confess, breathtaking. It’s clear that Gaspard chose them for who they are as people as well as for their technical prowess. “I entered into this project with a level of care and sensitivity,” says Kevin. “I wanted to be respectful of the culture and the creative process. The African and Caribbean cultures are so similar—traditions, food, how we wash our hands, our clothes….”
“My mom would put herbs in water—ferns and eucalyptus—and wash me with it,” adds Marsha. “Eucalyptus is good for your energy.” The bowl on the studio floor is, it turns out, full of ferns and eucalyptus.
During a break one afternoon, I ask all three about their history with swing dancing, with the Lindy. They look at me blankly. “I’m an immigrant,” Gaspard reminds me. But there is something about the way he has built this duet, the way Marsha and Kevin perform it, that seems, though made on exquisitely trained dancers comfortable with the intimacy of contact improvisation, at once casual and serious and social, channeling the very soul of African style
Gaspard and his dancers return to the studio in August, preparing for a tour that will take them and Sodo to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; to Wilmington, North Carolina; and on to the Dominican Republic, and Croatia. Turning a still visual artifact—in this case a suite of photographs of a sacred site—into choreography is a process fraught with danger, but Gaspard has managed it well, and the world awaits the chance to view the finished piece.
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for many publications including Dance Magazine and The Village Voice. She offers writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, and edits manuscripts of all kinds. She contributed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Halifax and Vancouver from 1971-1978, covered ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer (1997 – 2005), edited the dance section of The Village Voice (1992 -2006), and has served as a critic there and elsewhere since 1981. She taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program (2011-2019), where she met Gaspard Louis, and has studied many forms of dance.
Photos: Maria Baranova