Jean-Leon Destine; at 94, the father of Haitian dance

Written on February 14, 2013 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Jean-Leon Destine, a Haitian dancer and choreographer who brought his country’s traditional music and dance to concert stages around the world, died Jan. 22 at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

Considered the father of Haitian professional dance, Mr. Destine first came to international attention in the 1940s and remained prominent for decades afterward.

As a dancer, he performed well into old age. In 2003, reviewing a program at Symphony Space in New York in which he appeared, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times that his number stopped the show. She added, “He looked agile and nuanced, mesmerizing in a bent-legged ­solo.”

As a choreographer, he directed his own ensemble, which came to be the Destine Afro-Haitian Dance Company.

The company, which presented work from across the Caribbean, was devoted in particular to dances from Haiti. Accompanied by vibrant drumming — Mr. Destine collaborated for many years with the distinguished Haitian drummer Alphonse Cimber — these dances were often infused with elements of Voodoo tradition.

Mr. Destine and company could dance, to all appearances, as if possessed.

Much of his work also functioned as commentary on Haiti’s legacy of colonialism and slavery. In “Slave Dance,” a solo piece he choreographed and performed, the dancer begins in bondage, ­only to emerge, in astonished joy, a free man.

In “Bal Champetre” (“Country Ball”), among the most famous works choreographed by Mr. Destine, the foppish customs of Haiti’s French colonists are satirized through sly subversions of a Baroque ­minuet.

In the United States, Mr. Destine was seen on Broadway; at the New York City Opera, where in 1949 he was a featured dancer in the world premiere of William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island,” set in Haiti; and, as a performer and teacher, with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. He also taught at New York University and elsewhere.

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