October 29, 2009 — Gilbert Laumord slowly propelled his feet across the floor by grabbing the wood with his toes. The movement was one of the basic dance steps derived from music and dance traditions that grew out of slavery in the French Caribbean.
Laumord, artistic director of Siyaj Caribbean Theater and a native of Guadeloupe, was joined by director José Exélis from Martinique and actor Ruddy Sylaire from Haiti and production manager Elvia Guttiérrez, from Mexico. on Oct. 18 as they began a three-day residency that included theoretical and practical workshops and two performances of the play, "Comme deux frères," by acclaimed Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé.
The visit was arranged by assistant professor of French Stéphanie Bérard, an expert on the theater of the Antilles. The endeavor was an interdisciplinary project with the departments of French, drama and music, and was funded mainly by the Page Barbour Lecture Endowment.
For the first workshop, Laumord and Exélis led a group of U.Va. students and community members in the techniques of music and dance traditions of bélè from Martinique and gwoka from Guadeloupe.
The two artists introduced the workshop participants to the commonalities and differences between the two Francophone traditions. Gwoka is a dance for one performer facing a drummer, while bélè incorporates a martial arts component with several dancers and can be a "danse de combat," or fight dance, with origins in a time of resistance against slavery.
The two approaches share the tradition of the "circle," derived from African heritage and time of slavery on the islands when it was forbidden for slaves to gather.
The origins are "sociological, political and spiritual," Exélis said.
Despite the different African heritages, "they developed a common language through music," Laumord said.
"The circle is the circle of life, mother, the sea, the time we spend 'til our last day on Earth," he said.
In addition to the circle, drums play a major role in both traditions. Dancers enter the circle and create a dialogue with the drums. The lead dancer also tells a story. During slave times, drums were outlawed and the dancers created drum-like sounds with their voices that resonate deep within their bodies. The drum is the "intermediary between mother earth and the slaves. It is the link between human beings and the spirits," Exélis said.
"You have to find the drums inside your body, the sound comes from breathing. Everyone can find rhythm just by breathing," Laumord said.
The group practiced the breathing techniques. As a rhythm emerged, Laumort added another element, singing.
Laumord said traditionally participants could continue this activity for hours.
In both traditions, the theatrical element incorporates "magical religious gestures," Exélis added.
Anthropology assistant professor Yarimar Bonilla, who teaches "Caribbean Perspectives," praised the interdisciplinary venture and its relevance.
"In our class we discussed the process of creolization through which certain forms were brought to the New World during the period of slavery. This led to a continuity of forms across the region: in domains such as music, dance, religious rites and practices, we see great similarities across Caribbean societies," Bonilla said.
In another workshop, Laumord, Sylaire and Exélis conducted readings, theatrical interpretation and discussion of "Comme deux frères," a play about two imprisoned friends who are "like two brothers." More than 300 students studied the play as a class assignment, Bérard said.
"In discussing Condé's work, they described her as a kind if visionary. Her exploration of Guadeloupean society, that forces individuals to a breaking point and then explodes, became a reality in these islands not long after she wrote the play," said French major Norhan Fillo, who is also a student in the Curry School of Education.
The troupe gave two performances of the play to packed audiences. The minimalist staging focused the audience on the actors and their actions. The audience surrounded the stage on three sides, adding to the sense of confinement for the action, which took place in a prison.
The play is "not only about prison, but about being locked in or trapped," Exélis said to the audience in a post-performance Q&A session.
Incorporated into the production were movements borrowed from the Caribbean dance and music traditions. Exélis told the group that the play expresses a "theater of movement" perspective in which "the body says what the verb is incapable of saying."
"The music and dance workshop they held on Sunday and the discussion earlier that day made the performance more powerful for me. I felt I could better appreciate the intricate role of the music types and dance," Fillo said.
Laumord also led MFA drama students in a workshop on "the organic performer," guiding them in the traditions of the circle and basic steps as well as exercises in improvisation within the established circle structure.
"His ability to establish trust with a group of actors-in-training and to call out unself-conscious vocal and physical responses in them was remarkable," associate drama professor Kate Burke said.
Laumord shared with the group his journey to Africa as a young boy, which was followed by schooling and theater training in Europe. He then returned to Guadeloupe to explore his native traditions and expose people to a wide range of professional theater experiences, which differed from the comic or escapist theater to which they had become accustomed.
"My goal is to expose people to all kinds of theater, more poetic theater, theater to make people think," he said. Theater "rooted in their identity, the earth and basic things they are in touch with. My inspiration comes from traditional dance and oral tradition," Laumord added.
Students from associate drama professor Theresa Davis' African-American theater class, who later met with Sylaire for a workshop on the connection between African-American and Caribbean theater, joined the Laumord and MFA students for a session on the oral drum and singing customs. The group worked in a call-and-response format with Laumord as he began to dance.
"I consider myself a searcher and an everlasting student. For me it is important to listen to your heart," he said.
"This is what theater is about — finding out who we are and how we can express that to the world, because it is meant to be shared with others," MFA acting student Napoleon Tavale said.
The visit exceeded expectations, Bérard said. "I am amazed by the impact of the Siyaj Company visit, bringing faculty and students together from various departments, allowing everyone to discover the richness of Caribbean culture through dance, music and theater. Who could have guessed that the performance in French of a Caribbean play would attract so many people from both U.Va. and the community of Charlottesville?
"The artists were deeply touched by the hospitality, the warm welcoming and the interest showed by students in their art. Now they have only one wish: to come back to Charlottesville soon."