Interview with Portsha T. Jefferson, Founder/Artistic Director of Rara Tou Limen (RTL), Haitian Dance & Drum Performing Co.
Yuri Kasinsky Carnaval Questions 2015-2017
Question 1: This past weekend  you were picked for the 1st time to be a judge for the King and Queen Competition of San Francisco Carnaval. How were you picked? Why do you think they picked you?
Stella asked if I would be interested in judging the King and Queen competition last year. Unfortunately, I was going to be out of the country, so I had to decline. This year I was approached again to judge. I was available, and honored to be a part of such an esteemed panel of judges. I don't consider myself an authority or elder in the dance community, but I'd like to think that my consistent work ethic, my work with Rara Tou Limen and the artistic offerings that I've presented to the dance community were all factors in my selection as a judge.
photo credit: Robert Werner | Carnaval SF King & Queen Competition 2015
Question 2: You have been a dancer, a choreographer, hosted fundraisers, even done carnival in other countries, what keeps you coming back to San Francisco’s Carnaval?
Initially, Rara Tou Limen was conceived in 2004 to represent Haiti in San Francisco’s Carnaval. In previous years, there had been Haitian representation, but what followed was a huge absence for many years. I wanted to change that. Haitian dance and musical traditions have been the back bone of the Bay Area dance community for years. The culture is rich, powerful and deeply rooted in spirituality. As a student and teacher of Haitian dance, I am compelled to make Haiti shine in full splendor in San Francisco Carnaval.
I return because I love seeing the vision come to life! It's a wonderful feeling to see the entire presentation with full costume, dancing, singing and drumming. The spirit of Haiti is with us as we parade through the Mission. I return because each year RTL's dance community is fortified and renewed with beautiful energy from our dancers. My mission is to create community, and as a result, our Carnaval collective is stronger and tighter each year. SF Carnaval was RTL Kanaval Group 2005’s first platform. Our debut! From our humble beginning in 2005 to participating in this year's parade in 2015, it is an honor to represent Ayiti!
photo credit: Yuri Kasinsky | Carnaval SF 2017
Question 3: You seem to embrace Carnaval like an old friend who comes to visit once a year. Aside from perfecting choreography, music, planning costumes and rehearsing what other things do you do with your carnaval crew?
Creating a meaningful theme is essential to RTL's Carnaval presentation. In addition to the theme, each year, our contingent is governed by a particular Lwa (Vodou spirit) for guidance, strength and protection. Participants are encouraged to go beyond the costumes and choreography, and research the historical context of our theme and also learn more about the presiding Spirit and how that Spirit's energy can be applied to our presentation, most importantly, the participant’s life. Rara groups typically use Carnaval as a platform to address political issues. This year , we are discussing the strained relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and will tie in slogans, props and chants to reflect our disposition on that subject matter. Lastly, we have craft parties and social gatherings outside of rehearsal. The craft party is an opportunity for dancers to put their own "Ase" or energy into their costume and head dress and a great way for us to break bread, connect and gel as a contingent.
Question 4: What is one thing you've experienced at other carnivals that you would like to see here? I had the pleasure of dancing in carnival in Haiti in 2008, with one of my teachers, Ramses Pierre. Port-au- Prince was transformed into one big party! It was beautiful to see various communities come together to celebrate. I was also able to see how Haiti's government assisted in making sure each group was financially secure. Ramses' group was compensated nicely, which allowed for costume construction and a monetary offering for dancers and musicians. Not only was this my first time dancing in Carnaval in Haiti but, I was financially compensated for my participation, totally unexpected. Participating in SF Carnaval has been a rewarding experience, however I would like to see more financial support from the city itself. Expenses usually outweigh the grand budget for each contingent. As this is a yearly event, why not allocate funds for the Carnaval organization to distribute to participating contingents? This would ease the financial burden for many, considering many groups are small grass roots organizations, preserving Art & Culture. SF Carnaval is a unique array of different cultures proudly representing the flavors and colors of The Mission, a historical section of SF, steeped in dance, music, art, poetry and political activism. The spirit of Carnaval brings joy, excitement, love and unity to San Francisco. It's vital that these cultures and traditions are kept alive.
Kanaval in Port-au-Prince, Haiti | 2008
Question 5: This year you were a judge instead of leading a Carnaval group in the street parade. What did you learn from this different perspective? What was your experience of Carnaval in 2017? ...& will you bring back a Haiti contingent next year?
I had a blast at SF Carnaval! What an honor to be asked to judge and sit amongst four powerful shakers and movers in the arts. As a Carnaval judge, I witnessed beauty, divine artistry, dedication and commitment in preserving culture and traditions. Aside from the competitive aspect of a judging process the overall theme is quite apparent - Community! Carnaval preparation is hard work. It requires time, money and sacrifice. It's a true labor of love. Carnaval SF provides a platform for the community to come together to showcase cultural traditions. I gained a deeper appreciation for our Bay Area dance and drum community and the amount of pride, spirit and enthusiasm each contingent displayed.Next year SF Carnaval will celebrate its 40th Anniversary. Rara Tou Limen has had a two year break. I think it's time for a Haitian contingent to return in full splendor!
photo credit: Yuri Kasinsky | Carnaval SF 2012
photo credit: Martha Estrella | Carnaval SF Judges 2017 l to r: Portsha T. Jefferson, Linda Larissa Gamino, Laura Yanow, Patricia Thumas