Dance Legend Faces Struggle to Create Botanical Garden in Troubled Country

Published Wednesday, April 30, 1997, in the Miami Herald

Miami Herald Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Dance legend Katherine Dunham's 62-year-old love affair with Haiti is in question. Her determination to leave a legacy for Haitians is not.

The two are inextricably entwined.

``I feel discouraged,'' Dunham said recently, during her first trip to Haiti since 1995.

Part of that discouragement springs from the country's continuing turmoil, which has stalled Dunham's efforts to convert a 20-acre tract of forested land in Port-au-Prince into a botanical garden.

Haiti captured Dunham's heart in the 1930s, when she arrived as a dancer and anthropologist to study the country's culture, history and, particularly, its dance.

Dunham, in turn, captured the hearts of Haitians by making the dances of Haiti and the Caribbean internationally known. The love affair was rekindled in 1993, when Dunham held a 47-day fast to protest the U.S. policy of repatriating Haitians who were fleeing the military regime.

``That seems to have impressed people most of all,'' Dunham said, adding that she undertook the fast to draw the attention of the American press which ``had either presented Haiti in a condescending or glamourizing way.''

``The people in America knew nothing about Haiti,'' she said.

Approaching her 88th birthday, Dunham remains an icon in Haiti. Just last month, she met with President Rene Preval and was awarded honorary Haitian citizenship. Such honors have become routine.

``I guess I'm spoiled,'' she said. ``I was so used to it . . . My fifth [Haitian] decoration was as High Commander of the Legion of Honor and Merit.''

Dunham also was special guest at a weeklong dance seminar sponsored by a school run by Eileen Herzong Bazin, sister-in-law of former presidential candidate Marc Bazin.

But most of her time has been dedicated to dealing with her property in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in the country, including tracts in Cap-Haitien and in the mountains above Port-au-Prince.

Her most ambitious project is preserving and transforming her forested Port-au-Prince land into a unique botanical preserve.

The gardens, a rarity in a country ravaged by deforestation, contain many plant species native to Haiti. Dunham purchased the property in the early 1950s. It is said to have once been presided over by Napoleon's sister, Pauline Bonaparte Leclerc, although some question that assertion.

A decade later, she bought another three acres and built a residential complex that served as home away from home for Dunham, her late husband, John Pratt, and her dance troupe. She continues to maintain a household staff of 18 at the residence, some of whom have been on the payroll for more than three decades.

In the 1970s, she leased half the property to a French company which constructed Habitation Leclerc, a Sybaritic resort with bungalows and swimming pools that became internationally known before it folded in the early 1980s.

Squatter invasion

Since Dunham's last visit, squatters and thugs have invaded the once-pristine grounds of Habitation Leclerc, moving into its bungalows, cutting down trees, destroying plants and dealing drugs.

``When I first came [in mid-March] -- the first two, three weeks -- I said, `I am not coming back here.' About a week later something happened. . . . I said, `You idiot. You still love it.' Now I'm like a woman who wants to know: Does she want to go back to the husband she divorced or not? So far I haven't made up my mind.''

Still, she observed in a voice that remains throaty and strong: ``It would be so foolish of me to be upset or distressed about the way things are going because it's all a part of the evolution and emotion that goes into trying to build a new type of political system.

``I say to people who complain . . . that it's going to have to go on for a while until these internal adjustments are made. The only discouraging thing is how long is that going to take.''

Protecting the property

Despite the problems, Dunham remains committed to converting the property, which lies near the seashore amid surrounding slums. To that end, intermittent talks continue with the London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International to help create and manage the Katherine Dunham Botanical Garden.

In late 1995, the BGCI sent two botanists -- a young man and woman on scholarships -- to Haiti to do plant and tree identification work on Habitation Leclerc.

``They got down here and things were all right for a while,'' said Dunham. ``But then the [squatter] invasion started. The first one I think was with torches and it scared the young man to death. The girl stayed. She does have relatives here. But the man beat it.''

The first priority now, said Dunham and Jean Claude Elie, her representative in Haiti, is to find $30,000 to $50,000 to rebuild and raise the wall that surrounds the property to provide physical protection for plants and trees.

``Those squatters should be glad that I am about to enter my 88th year,'' Dunham said, ``because if I were like I was many times when I've been to Haiti before, I probably would have found some way to get some grenades to throw on them myself.''

It is not the first time her neighbors have created problems. In the early 1990s, local musical groups had been allowed to use the property for rehearsals, Dunham said. The rehearsals turned into drinking and cat barbecuing sessions and ``I thought that was just not the thing to do.'' Her manager at the time booted them off the property in a rather impolitic way. The group threatened revenge.

They got it the day of the 1991 military coup that ousted then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Amid the chaos and confusion, they ransacked Dunham's residence and stole many of her valuable artifacts.

Her insistence on rescuing the gardens for the future is fitting for a woman who insisted on defying past traditions.

Breaking barriers

In a way, Dunham could be described as the Jackie Robinson of dance, helping to break the color barrier of classical dance as Robinson did with major league baseball. It's among the things that first brought her to Haiti.

Blacks in the 1930s were largely restricted to jazz and tap dancing, excluded from ballet and other classical dancing, she says.

``People said, `Oh, their bodies are different. They are made different, and they can't do technical ballet.' Of course, that was an absurdity. So I came to try and find if there were not dance movements and forms that were more associated with people of color, black people -- and of course, the Caribbean was full of them.''

So Dunham took back their dances and introduced them to Broadway.

``Katherine Dunham first went to Haiti . . . when she was granted a Rosenwald Fellowship to study primitive dance and ritual in the West Indies and Brazil,'' says an editor's note in Island Possessed, Dunham's book about Haiti published in 1969. ``A graduate student in anthropology, and already a successful dancer and choreographer, she found in Haiti endless variations of her two interests.''

She is still finding them, more than six decades after that first trip.


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