1994/5 Dance of White Darkness

Emboldened by being allowed to let the devil loose above the altar at Westminster Abbey, our next project was to dramatise the story of Maya Deren. Deren is an important figure in the history of alternative cinema in the USA. But what first attracted my attention was her book ‘The Voodoo Gods’ (originally called ‘The Divine Horsemen’). This impressed me when I first read it in the early 1970s. It was the story of Deren’s journey to Haiti, initially to film voudon dance. This venture took her on an unplanned inner journey that resulted in her becoming a mambo, a voudon priestess. The book is also a critique of modern western beliefs and morals, which Deren compares negatively with the integrity and cooperation that she experienced among the serviteurs (sèvitè), the followers of voudon with whom she came to live and work.

I was feeling increasingly confident in what we could achieve on stage. IDance of White Darkness I dropped any caution. The story attempted to explore voudon ceremonies, the loa spirit world, and spirit possession on stage. The story also looked at the relationship between these things and the ‘tourist voodoo’ that Deren writes about and comments on in her book.

One problem was to find performers who could interpret the material. Not so much the Maya Deren character herself, who was on a journey of discovery as a sophisticated American artist in, initially, an alien world. The real difficulty was finding performers to play the Haitian villagers and sèvitè. They would be the participants in the voudon ceremonies. Despite making an enormous effort I found it impossible to find experienced Afro-Caribbean performers. We contacted the Gambian/Senegalese master drummer Lamin Jassey and his then wife, Vicky. Culturally there are very close links between West Africa and Haitian voudon. Vicky joined the touring company and Lamin and Vicky together worked with us to train the performers in voudon ceremonies and dance. We also had help from the choreographer T.C. Howard, from Ludus dance. It was a big regret that we couldn’t find any other Haitian, West Indian or African performers at that period. Even now I wonder if it might have been possible, had we tried even harder? But wherever I looked, wherever we tried, there was nothing, nobody. I asked the Chair of our Board, Erik Knudsen, who is half Ghanaian, if he felt that we should abandon the project as a result of this. Erik was adamant that we should continue with our show.


The title we finally hit on was Dance of White Darkness. It was a phrase used by Maya Deren in attempting to describe spirit possession. This is when a sèvitè is gripped by a trance in which their body is taken over, possessed, by a voudou spirit, or loa. Another key image that I used in our show was taken from the same passage in Deren’s book – that of the horse and rider. The idea here is that the body of the sèvitè becomes the mount for a loa. It was a potentially difficult subject to deal with.

Performing the show at Atlantic College, an international college in South Wales, I was approached be a member of college staff after the show. He introduced me to a young woman, who turned out to be a Haitian student. She asked if we could speak alone. She then asked me ‘how did I know these things?’ She told me that on leaving Haiti her family said that in Wales she should never, ever, talk about her religion. Yet, here we were, an English theatre company, dealing with what she assumed were strongly taboo subjects here. She assumed that I must have lived in Haiti. 

The tours

We spent ten weeks in preparation and rehearsal, and a couple more weeks on previews.  Then we packed, and the company of nine (and our horses) were ready at the beginning of July. The show toured to Dumfries & Galloway, Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Humberside. Later we took the show to the Netherlands. During the 1990s we had a wonderful Dutch agency – Drie Stenen – who produced highly successful, and profitable, tours for several years.

In 1995 we started a second tour of the show in Caithness. After this we travelled south, and eventually hooked up with a ship to Orkney, as part of the St. Magnus Festival. On Orkney we walked to the island of South Ronaldsay. This was the community that had been deeply affected by what was known as the ‘Orkney child abuse scandal’. In this, children had been removed from their families in dawn raids, and taken into care. Although all charges had been dismissed by the time we arrived, including the original charges of ‘satanic abuse’. But children had been separated from their families for over a year, and this had causing enormous suffering.


On our arrival on the island, the authorities got to hear more about the subject of the show. There was a near panic as to what the implications of this might be. So young people were excluded from the opening night. The show was watched nervously by councillors and counsellors, but at the end the show was pronounced ‘safe’. It was a brave, though a correct, conclusion, and and suggestion of censorship was avoided. The Orkney tour went ahead successfully.

After Orkney we took the show to Roma settlements in Slovakia. Then, later, to refugee groups on the Hungarian border areas with Croatia and Serbia. Refugees were pouring over the border to escape the war, and we performed in centres where young people affected by the conflict were gathering to meet one another.

It was an extraordinary situation for us. But we felt that we were playing a useful part simply by being there with our show, improvising parades and entertainment for the locals and the young refugees. What we didn’t know at the time was that, caught up in the instability of the conflict zone, a number of promises to pay us for this work were broken. When we returned we found that the tour had left us with a deficit of £11,500. It would be double that amount by today’s standards. Overall not a huge amount, but a big blow to the company at that point in our history.

Review from Speelhuis, The Netherlands 21.10.94
…Horse + Bamboo have translated Deren’s story with great integrity into a theatre piece in which all the performers wear expressive masks. Maya Deren arrives in Haiti as one of a group of tourists. She lodges in the house of one of the islanders and thus come into contact with ‘voodoo’. In nine short acts the changes in Deren are accurately portrayed by the company. from the observation of ‘voodoo’ trinkets sold for money, via an attempt to capture Haiti as it really is by living with the locals, to the moment she is forced to choose between returning home, her task incomplete, or becoming a member of the community from which position it would be impossible to film.

The company consistently hit upon small details which communicate the changes in Deren better than the sue of spectacular effects would. Only the tourists and their masks are caricatures. Deren and teh Haitians have eloquently sculpted masks which contribute to a sense of realism rather than distract from it. The vodoun apparitions were created in simple but enormously effective ways; never frightening; sometimes stunningly beautiful – the spiritual world of vodoun is made visible.

The music, which was performed live, was integral to the performance. It carried one along and without exaggeration could be said to form the stage for the performers. I can’t think of a better compliment! It is also no exaggeration to say that Horse + Bamboo, by telling Deren’s story in this way, have achieved what she herself failed to do, namely to capture a lifelike impression of Haitian spiritual life.

Maarten Jansen trans. Elke Deadman.


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