“It's a great thing for us to be in the festival this year,” says Portsha Jefferson, artistic director of Ethnic Dance Festival first timer, the Rara Tou Limen  Haitian dance company. “There's so many misconceptions about Haiti and voudou -- this gives the world a better idea of what makes the Haitian people so strong.” Her company is not the only one that sees the festival as a unique way to shout out to the world. Now in its 32nd year, the Ethnic Dance Festival (begins Sat/5) is cited as one of the reasons that our international dance scene is considered to be among the strongest in the country.
Rara Tou Limen was born on the streets in the Mission, the sole Haitian dancers in the neighborhood's ecstatic Carnaval festivities. Jefferson, herself a Haitian-American, was compelled to start a group that worked against negative stereotypes of Haiti, and captured “the beauty of the culture, the people, the music, the food,” the long time dancer says. She was also motivated by an urge to share what her people have achieved. “Knowing [the Haitians'] history, and what they've done in terms of revolution and fighting for their rights; the fact that they're so strong and resilient, that really speaks to me. I think all of those characteristics of the people come through their music, and through the dance. It's hard not to get caught in it.”
The success of Haitian dance in the Bay echoes a larger trend of SF dancers finding connection with ancestral artistic forms, and even with cultures apart from their own. Rara Tou Limen's musical director, master Haitian drummer Daniel Brevil, was happy to see the resonance his homeland traditions had created when he arrived in the Bay in 2008. It was far away from the island where he learned rhythms from his father beginning at the age of eight, but “when I got here and I saw how many people taught Haitian dance,” Brevil says “I was so happy and proud to be Haitian. The people that teach it here, [some of them] they're not even Haitian.”
That kind of exposure to new art forms is exactly what inspires festival organizer Julie Mushet. The executive director of World Arts West, the group that coordinates the festival, Mushet “was completely astounded the first time I got to experience [the festival].”.
Each year, prospective companies undergo a lengthy audition process – beginning with tryouts that can themselves attract crowds of dance fans. 130 local groups auditioned this year for eight dance experts, who then assembled a list of their top 20, and sent them to the World Arts West staff for the final decision on who got to dance in the festival's three performance weekends.
Mushet says their choices come down to a matrix of qualities; choreography, dynamics between dancers, quality of music, props and regalia -- but in the end the festival is also looking for cultural diversity. World Arts West believes that in the connections between dance and other artistic traditions lie a certain key to cross cultural participation.
“Parents tend to take their kids to the ballet, “The Nutcracker,” but it's harder to figure out how to introduce kids to the hundreds of other [dance] forms they could learn about,” says Mushet. “[The festival] is a great way to see what the child might be interested in – many of the current dancers first attended as audience members, and now twenty years later, they're part of a group that's on stage.”
A tutu... or the beautiful, sparkling outfits Rara Tou Limen wears in their Carnaval performance? Pirouettes or the more elemental joy of their rhythmic ducks and twirls to pounding rara drums? With 37 companies dancing the traditional and updated forms of movement from countries like Korea, the Congo, Uzbekistan, and Puerto Rico, the Ethnic Dance Festival has a form of beauty for everyone, be it their own cultural tradition or one they'll discover the day of the show.
Ethnic Dance Festival
Through June 27
Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. (also Sat., 8 p.m.), $22-44
Palace of Fine Arts
3301 Lyon, SF