Ayibobo III Elle Barbara

Photo by Jeffrey Torgerson

Black queer/trans experience takes centre stage in Elle Barbara’s Ayibobo III

Ayibobo III: Little Dollhouse on the Prairie blends dance, performance art and experimental soundscapes, Haitian Voodoo spirituality and pop culture.

Montreal-based queer icon Elle Barbara is bringing back the sound and dance performance Ayibobo for a third installment in collaboration with Danse-Cité.

Ayibobo III: Little Dollhouse on the Prairie is the most ambitious iteration of the show, which was part of the Lux Magna festival in 2019 and 2020 and blends dance and performance art with experimental soundscapes. The result is a work exploring Black and queer intersectionality through Haitian Voodoo spirituality and making use of modern pop culture references. The new iteration of the show, which premieres on Sept. 11 at la Chapelle, features two performers from the House of Barbara, a collection of Black queer/trans artists headed by Elle Barbara who compete in Montreal’s vogue ballroom scene, as well as performers from two other houses.

Ayibobo is the result of “my position in the ballroom scene as a house mother who wants to push up and coming artists like my children into practices that extend beyond your run of the mill ball event,” says Barbara. “It’s always been my mission to push my children into territories that go beyond those confines.”

Performers Chris M. Barbara, Syana O. Barbara, Kim N. Sankofa and Rony F. Campbell will each embody a loa or spirit chosen from the many loas in Haitian spirituality, bringing them to life through their performance. In this way, the show seeks to explore the importance of sexual and gender diversity in ancestral cultures that was lost over time.

“It’s an allegory of the fact that gender and sexual diversity has always had a place, has always existed in our ancestral cultures. By way of colonization and Christian indoctrination, pan-Africans — in this case Haitians, although not all the performers are of Haitian descent — have forgotten the collective spirit of where they come from,” says Barbara. 

The performers selected the loa that speaks to them, then worked with Barbara to interpret that loa through dance. Barbara says that the myth of the mermaid is also used in one of the performances as a metaphor for the experience of being trans.

“Each of the individual, you might want to call them chapters, is framed with contemporary commentary,” Barbara explains. Between the performances, Barbara uses sound clips from sources like America’s Next Top Model, Oprah Winfrey or product advertisements to make space for commentary on Black and queer intersectionality in the modern world. 

“It’s easy to feel lost fighting for your rights in as far as society is compartmentalized. And because of that, you’ll go into a Black space and to realize that you’re left out by way of your sexual or gender difference and then you’d go into the gay community and realize that it’s not all encompassing.” 

Barbara says that this intersectionality between those two experiences, being Black as well as being queer/trans, is at the heart of what Ayibobo represents.

Ayibobo III: Little Dollhouse on the Prairie

“My desire with Ayibobo is to create an artistic conversation that centres the Black queer experience,” says Barbara. “It’s sort of like always trying to carve out a platform, create platforms that centre us, because they hardly exist in Montreal in my experience.”

With Danse-Cité, Ayibobo can expand into a bigger project than Lux Magna’s indie DIY spirit called for. Barbara had long since been in touch with the artistic director of Danse-Cité about doing a collaboration, and when Lux Magna didn’t return for a 2021 iteration in the midst of the pandemic, Barbara said it was time for Ayibobo to grow.

“We didn’t make do with our limited resources this time. I tend to err on the side of having million-dollar ideas,” says Barbara. “I consider myself a maximalist. More money, more ideas.”

Those who come to see Ayibobo III: Little Dollhouse on the Prairie are in for an eclectic, experimental show that blends all sorts of media, histories and genres. “People have been asking me what it is. On the one hand I’m reluctant to call it performance art. On the other hand, one might want to call it experimental theatre with elements of dance as well,” says Barbara.

“It’s a personal piece. It comes from me, it comes from the heart.” ■

Ayibobo III: Little Dollhouse on the Prairie is at la Chapelle (3700 St-Dominique) from Sept. 11–18, 7 p.m. nightly, $20–$30. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit the Danse Cité website.

For more on the Montreal arts scene, please visit the Arts & Life section.