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Arts & Culture, New York

From Haiti to Harlem: Haitian Dancer Makes NYC Debut With the Legendary Dance Theater of Harlem

by M. Skye Holly

His favorite ballet is Bhakti by Maurice Béjart. The music and deep red colors found in the performance feel familiar to Sanford Placide, even though the story is rooted in Indian Hindu culture. The color remind him of life and diversity. It is mostly the movement of the dance that he relates to, and Béjart’s desire to expose audiences to the global community that he is inspired by.

Placide was born in Port-au-Prince and raised in Gonaïves, Haiti, and is ever proud to hail from “a city of revolutionaries.” This week Placide fulfilled a lifelong dream of dancing in New York City with the legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem. The New York City Spring Season 2017 for the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) was held at City Center from April 19-22. Sanford Placide has previously danced with Ballet Hispanico, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Ballet West in Utah, among others. Most recently, he has danced with Alberta Ballet in Canada before joining DTH in July. All of his domestic and international tours each have a place in his heart, yet becoming a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem gives him both a sense of pride and pleasure like no other. It is the work of this company that beckoned him into the world of ballet when he was back home in Gonaïves.

“Haiti is a country that makes you want to dance, period,” Placide asserts. “You wake up in Haiti, you hear music everyday. Whether you are walking on your way to school and with your friends at recess—the games you play, there is always a song or something to move to.”

Like a lot of his relatives and classmates, Placide was encouraged to study music and his parents enrolled him in piano lessons.

“Only I was really, really bad at it, or I thought so, anyway,” he laughs.

To his surprise, dance lessons were held at the same studio where his music lessons were and he remembers being intrigued by the sounds of the drums.

“You’re Haitian. It’s in your blood,” he says.

Sanford Placide found himself wandering into the rooms where the dancers studied traditional/folkloric dance and ballet and joined in.

“Luckily for me, nobody was being strict or paying attention to whether I had registered or not. I came there for piano, but my teachers just saw that I loved to dance. I went right to the dance studio instead and nobody bothered to tell me that my name wasn’t on the list.”

While Mr. Placide continued his training, one day he came across a video clip of Dance Theatre of Harlem. He was in awe. Banda, a ballet showcasing vodou culture in Haiti, was on the screen right before his eyes. His excitement could have been likened to a state of shock, because he could barely say a word. Placide fixed his eyes on the dancers and was determined to find out any and everything he could about DTH. He discovered that they not only performed ballets which paid homage to global cultures, something he desperately wanted to see in the dance world, but they also had a diverse company of dancers, onstage performing classical works, as well.

“I found out that you can dance professionally to different forms of music…to the traditional, with the drums, and to pieces with classical music, like Tchaikovsky. I saw that one could make a career out of this and I thought ‘Why not?’”

Mr. Placide set out for the United States in 2006 to become a dancer and came to New York in 2010. He auditioned for the company several times, in between contracts with other dance companies. At times he came close and felt a lot of support from the company directors, “but it just wasn’t the right time for me,” he said.

“I found this year everything happened at the right time,” he says with a shy smile.
“Ballet has taught me to take things as they come, and not to take things personally. It’s about the art.”

Mr. Placide doesn’t go many minutes without mentioning his family back in Gonaïves, the paintings in the streets or the vivid colors he remembers from his childhood neighborhood. He feels that the longer he is away from Haiti, the more its impressions deepen his appreciation of the culture and his upbringing. It also reinforces the ideas brewing in his mind on how he can impact the island in an artistic way.

“Right now, our country is coming back into the spotlight. With my career, I want to show what we are able to do. I want to make a change. I want to show through the company that [dancers] can move to anything…but I can’t stop thinking about all the girls and boys back in Gonaïves that I want to help. I think of opening dance schools and letting them know that you can do this for a living. This can be your career,” he says.

Mr. Placide’s goal to dance with the Dance Theatre of Harlem has become a reality and he would regret if he did not find a path to make similar dreams come true for other Haitian ballet dancers come true. He is also setting his aspirations on choreographing in the future. He wants to bring back to Gonaïves all he has accumulated in terms of learning and resources to “approach the arts in a different way.”

At rehearsal, his movements are consistent and strong, but filled with sensitivity. When he dances with a partner, his focus on her is like a gentle guide.

“If I’m dancing with a girl onstage, it’s about How do I make this girl as beautiful as possible? L’union fait la force,” he points out.

In between rehearsals for the night’s show at City Center, Placide heads over to a local restaurant for an early dinner. He talks about one of the ballets to be featured, Dialogues by Glen Tetley. Placide had the honor of being a lead dancer in this ballet when DTH performed at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in March. He says Dialogues is the most difficult ballet he’s done.

“So far, this company has challenged me and I love that. I love a challenge. If you’re not being challenged, there is no excitement,” says Mr. Placide.

Looking out the window at the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, he breaks into a laugh and adds “I can’t believe I’m here. I live here.”

Apr. 23, 2017

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