Chapo Ba: in which we give a tribute to someone who has made significant impact on Haitian culture.
Today’s Chapo Ba goes out to Jean-Léon Destiné.
Picture the scene. It is a cold November night of the 7th 1946, and it’s a full house at the New York Belasco Theater. During Act 2 of “Bel Nègre”, Katherine Dunham’s grand dance spectacle a handsome young man, with a fit body, gracefully sings a Haitian traditional song “Solèy”, followed by a version of “Apollon” accompanied by other Haitian performers. Jean-Léon Destiné was in the building.
The young man born in 1925 in the city of St. Marc, and was barely 21, when he had one of his first tastes of international fame. This 1946 performance that brought him alongside Ertha Kitt and Katherine Dunham would be one of many that would solidify his reputation as one of the most celebrated dancers in the world. According to music ethnologists Ray Allen and Lois Wilcken, Destiné’s first major performance was in 1941 in Washington D.C. as a member of renowned Haitian dancer Lina Mathon’s dance troupe.
By the late 1940s, he made the move to New York, in due part to a scholarship that he had gotten to study printing in the USA.
Destiné would record several albums on the Elektra record label, and even established his own dancing troupe. His fame in New York was so great, that the Haitian goverment under Dumarsais Estimé recruited him as a Cultural Ambassador of sort. Destiné would go on to represent Haiti across 5 continents, whether at theatre, dance, or world folklore festivals. Along with Alphonse Cimber, Jeanne Ramon, Lina Mathon Fussman Blanchet, he was considered one of the biggest names in Haitian folklore dance and theatre.
Festival in Haiti, one of the dozens of his albums, contained 10 pieces, that blended Haitian folk music with roots music, as Destiné was reportedly very influenced by ritual music. In 1971, his made one of his many USA television appearances on NBC’s “The Today Show”, appearing with ballet dancer Maria Tallchief and other contemporaries.
Living in the USA had some of its challenges. In 1958, Eleanor and Edward Chapin, a socialite couple in Connecticut invited Destiné as their guest at Lake Club, an exclusive club in Norwalk. The couple was expelled from the club soon after under the pretext that it was due to Mrs. Chapin’s behavior at a previous gathering at the club. But, the Chapins asked, if that was the case, why wasn’t Mrs. Chapin excluded from the club then? The ugly incident was considered significant enough to earn a write-up in Jet magazine in October of 1959. Destiné told the magazine: “As soon as I got there, I saw white members leaving the swimming pool, as I got into it.”
Incidents like these must have been hurtful to Destiné, but the show must go on! And it did. Today, Jean-Léon Destine’s imprint on American dance is undeniable, having been the teacher of the biggest names in American dance, and future directors of major dance companies in the USA, like The Marshall Dance Company.
Jane Desmond, a dance critic would later sum up Destiné’s career: “Destiné created a repertory of dances that married indigenous tradition and ethnographic construction with ethnographic construction with Western production values.”
What Justin Elie had done for Haitian music in 1920s and early 1930s New York, Destiné did with dance, and he will never be forgotten for it.