Peace Madimutsa poses for a portrait inspired by choreography from Atlantis Rebirth at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on October 22, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The official trailer for the film Atlantis Rebirth begins with the sound of a helicopter and strains of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”: “Day-O, Day-O.” There’s a snippet of a huddled trio of Black dancers acting as slaves who recently arrived on the island of Sint Maarten. There’s a crowd shouting, anger, and a mysterious figure wearing a red mask. 

After that, the dancers dance, telling through movement the story of slavery and rebellion in the Caribbean. They emerge in the fictional world of Atlantis, where they find liberation and community and finally succeed at reimagining a prosperous Black future.

The new film is the sequel to Atlantis 13, a highly successful dance production created in 2018 by choreographers Jonathan “AJ” van Arneman and Peace Madimutsa. Just a few years prior, both were economic majors at Macalester College in St. Paul, from Sint Maarten and Zimbabwe, respectively. Yet, despite a small campus of roughly 2,000 students and an even smaller economics department, they barely knew each other.

Macalester College graduates Jonathan ‘AJ’ van Arneman and Peace Madimutsa explore the Middle Passage through dance forms like crump, break dance, vogue, and capoeira. Credit: Jonathan van Arneman

That changed when van Arneman pressured Madimutsa to join a dance group on campus led by Sister Patricia Brown.

“It took me two years to get in the studio,” recalled Madimutsa, who rejected previous invitations to join the dance group due to other commitments. “Fall of 2016 is when I finally broke off into this world.”

He surrendered and joined the group his senior year, performing at dance concerts and even collabing on their first group performance, Timeless Voyage. This dance piece reflected on the Middle Passage, the route slave ships took from West Africa to North America.

Timeless Voyage was really big,” van Arneman said. “We had a huge cast and that was the first thing we did that felt otherworldly. That set the groundwork for me and Peace working together.”

Post-graduation, the two began careers in finance and maintained a close friendship. They were no longer dancing together, but that would soon change. 

On one of van Arneman’s drives home to St. Paul from his job in Eden Prairie, he listened to an NPR podcast featuring the rap group Clipping. He got hooked by one of their songs, “The Deep,” about the Middle Passage.

“They would throw people overboard, pregnant women as well,” van Arneman explained. “This reimagination of the Middle Passage gave birth to children in the ocean. The children became one with the ocean and they created their own world under the sea. It wasn’t till later, when modern society was drilling for oil, that they found this civilization.”

Buzzing with excitement and intrigue about this underwater Black society, he reconnected with Madimutsa and fellow Macalester alumnus, Jonathan Goh, over pizza in Dinkytown.

“We were talking about myths and mysteries and AJ said there was a myth about the slaves fleeing slavery jumping in the water,” Madimutsa said. “Jonathan talked about Atlantis and started talking about the lost cities…and we were like, ‘We should call this Atlantis.’” 

Telling the story of Blackness and police brutality through dance

As two young Black men from other parts of the world, whose formative years were spent in the Twin Cities, Peace and AJ were more than familiar with the harsh realities of being Black in America. They’d learned to fear violence at the hands of law enforcement and understood the blessings of living to see another day.

In 2016, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights. Several months earlier, Jamar Clark had been killed by an officer in north Minneapolis. And in spring 2020, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd.

The dance production Atlantis 13 grew out of the need to address the history of police brutality and imagine a world where it no longer existed.

“If I walk out of here in downtown Minneapolis, I don’t know what will happen to me. Will I be stopped? With Atlantis, my power is beyond what I see. It’s the idea of conquering death.”

“Atlantis is a utopia,” Madimutsa said. “It’s a world you can teleport into. There’s the imagination side of it. It’s really about that switch. If I walk out of here in downtown Minneapolis, I don’t know what will happen to me. Will I be stopped? With Atlantis, my power is beyond what I see. It’s the idea of conquering death.”

Madimutsa and van Arneman’s vision for a Black utopia came to life when they learned about a $9,000 opportunity to join a dance show with Maia Maiden in the fall of 2017. 

They recruited several pan-African dancers from the Twin Cities. Together, they studied, shared, and practiced dance styles from the diaspora that would best tell the origin story of Atlantis—the revolt in the Middle Passage, jumping overboard, death, and rebirth.

“We wanted to start on a ship and journey through the water,” van Arneman said. “After that, the piece has to be in Atlantis. We had to think about, what’s happening? Who’s in our dances? What song will show that there is a revolt on the ship? How about the journey in the city and life in Atlantis? What movement can show that? What movement shows drowning in water or that people are sinking?”

With time, they found the appropriate movements through the incorporation and blending of crump, break dance, vogue, capoeira, Chicago house, and other dances from the Black diaspora.

Beyond portraying how Atlantis was formed, Madimutsa and van Arneman worked to challenge Black and white audiences on their nuanced comfort with Black sufferance and joy.

“The way we ended Atlantis 13 was a confrontation,” van Arneman said. “If we make you nervous, what is your purpose? If you see us and see a threat, why? What are you doing to question your own biases and beliefs and privilege?” 

He added, “You need to be critically thinking about positionality and why things are the way they are. Because our Atlantis, our utopia, is a solution to the system and making the system right again.” 

The inaugural dance show with Maia Maiden was a hit. From there, Atlantis 13 received grants from the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts and the troupe received invitations to perform across the Twin Cities.

The group’s growth was put on pause when co-director van Arneman made the decision to return home to Sint Maarten.

Homecoming and Atlantis Rebirth 

In the summer of 2019, van Arneman quit his job in finance and returned to the Caribbean. It had been nearly a decade since he left Sint Maarten for Minnesota. He longed to be home, but he also had intellectual and artistic reasons for the trip—unearthing forgotten Black histories on the island and in the Caribbean ,and expanding his creativity and dance knowledge.

Partnering with the National Institute of Art of St. Maarten, he began to research the forgotten history of Sint Maarten.

“I was researching Caribbean uprisings and revolutions. Lots of it was me educating myself and me educating others. For example, I knew I had to include the massacre in 1830; it’s very unknown.”

“I was researching Caribbean uprisings and revolutions. Lots of it was me educating myself and me educating others,” van Arneman said. “Knowing history in St. Maartens was new for a lot of people. For example, I knew I had to include the massacre in 1830; it’s very unknown.”

Ultimately, he decided to do some pieces on the Garifuna, a native and Afro-descendent mixed population in Central America and the Caribbean. He also focused on the history of slave rebellions and the challenges former slaves faced in preserving their Black cultures on an island ruled by two colonial powers—the Netherlands and France.

“A lot of the history I had to learn from talking to elders and using dance to educate myself as well,” van Arneman said. “Something that frustrates me about Sint Maarten is the lack of vision. A lot of leaders are reactive and not proactive and that gets to me, because we need to know where we’re going. If you can imagine it, you can make it a reality. If you can’t imagine it, that’s a huge problem.”

Where Atlantis 13 challenged the comfort with Black sufferance, Atlantis Rebirth explores a roadmap for a brighter future. The first step in creating that future, van Arneman believes, is reckoning with a forgotten history. But, even before doing that, he had to find dancers for the show.

“When AJ got there, he said, ‘They’re all kids.’ I just said, ‘Good luck,” recalled Madimutsa, who choreographed a few pieces for the show from Minnesota.

Unlike in Minneapolis, where van Arneman knew and was able to handpick his dancers, the choreographer was uncertain he’d find the same quantity and quality of experienced dancers for Atlantis Rebirth. 

“I was like, ‘Please let me get a good cast.’ I never knew these people,” van Arneman said. “In the early days, I had to break down the hierarchy. They were 18, 19, 20 years old and I’m 28. The relationship is not the same. Fortunately, they were great kids. But that was by luck.” 

Similar to the creation of Atlantis 13, van Arneman, Madimutsa, and the dance troupe had to come up with the perfect movements to share the story of Atlantis Rebirth. Instead of drowning and renaissance, it was about revolting and finding and building community. 

“The whole idea of Atlantis is finding unity,” van Arneman said. “You’re going through these revolutions for a purpose, because you’re making your way through oneness and wholeness that was lost to you. The Middle Passage happened and yes, you had rebellion on rebellion. But it’s not the end of your story. The end can be the unification of self and wholeness. That fulfillment of who we were meant to be.” 

COVID changes the performance plan 

Two weeks before Atlantis Rebirth’s expected premiere in Sint Maarten, COVID-19 arrived on the island. The airport shut down and soon the country would be on police-enforced lockdown. 

Like the rest of the world, van Arneman was uncertain about the impact of the disease, but he knew the premiere of Atlantis Rebirth would be postponed until it was safe to perform live.

“I waited to see what would happen, but I couldn’t delay it anymore and I was mad COVID wasn’t over,” van Arneman said. He waited several months for clearance to debut the show, but his patience ran low. “I needed to do something or else I was gonna lose the dancers.”

If he couldn’t gather large crowds to see a live performance, he could give them something to watch as they quarantined. With the remaining funding from the National Institute of Art of St. Maarten, van Arneman decided to turn his latest dance project into a film.

Realizing that his limited knowledge of filmmaking could only take him so far, van Arneman contracted with a local videographer and dancer, Marine Caillet, to shoot the film. Caillet’s understanding of dance movements mixed with van Arneman’s historical research transformed Atlantis Rebirth from a one-dimensional dance performance to a documentary-style film featuring powerful voices and mesmerizing dancers.

The film, which is available for streaming on Vimeo, follows three dancers, portraying former slaves, arriving on Sint Maarten. Through carefully selected movements and clothing, they illustrate the difficulty and violence that accompanied a new life on the island, a place inhabited by indigenous communities, colonizers, and other enslaved people. The new arrivals clearly stand out and struggle to adjust, and you can see the fear in their eyes as they navigate their surroundings.

As the film progresses, we watch interviews with Caribbean icons such as Martinque’s Aimé Césaire, Maurice Bishop from Grenada, and Daniella Jeffrey from Sint Maarten, to help the audience comprehend the continued struggles that Black Caribbeans face to preserve their culture and build a fruitful future. 

Atlantis Rebirth closes with the three main characters moving through the woods, to the tune of drums and hymns, and finally reaching the ocean, where they find their kin. Together, they exchange red cloth, representing blood and unity, and perform a masterful dance finale where their Blackness is affirmed and celebrated. At last, they are home.

Find your Atlantis—build your own Black utopia

In June, AJ van Arneman premiered Atlantis Rebirth across Dutch and French Sint Maarten to crowds of folks intrigued to learn their history and curious about the dance performance. 

After each show, van Arneman spoke with audience members about their thoughts on the film and its messages. “I had so many folks asking, ‘Why haven’t we learned this in schools?’ People were frustrated that if they hadn’t seen the film, they wouldn’t know things about themselves,” he said. “I think people felt represented, which means the world to me that people see themselves reflected in the film.”

In August, he returned to Minnesota for a screening of Atlantis Rebirth, with Peace Madimutsa and members of Atlantis 13, at the University of St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy Educational Center. It was the first showing van Arneman had done outside of Sint Maarten and roughly 100 people showed up for the event.

When the film ended, he and Madimutsa shared their thoughts on the meaning of Atlantis and future endeavors.

“In Atlantis Rebirth, it was based in St. Maarten, where they talk about a whole different type of utopia. With Atlantis 13, we explored Black love and deaths in America. But in the end, it’s the same utopia.

“In Atlantis Rebirth, it was based in St. Maarten, where they talk about a whole different type of utopia,” Madimutsa said. “With Atlantis 13, we explored Black love and deaths in America. But in the end, it’s the same utopia. Utopia is embracing that memory and finding ways to channel those memories in ways that build you.”

Van Arneman added, “We hope to connect Atlantis 13 and Rebirth together and merge the collective histories of American Blackness and other histories. We know that our dance crews are working on different projects and of course people have full-time jobs, but something is going to happen.”

If and when they are able to bring both groups together, the two dream of expanding their utopia to Africa, with a third dance crew and a new history to add to the Black collective.

“The goal is to bring Atlantis to Zimbabwe, in southern Africa,” Madimutsa said. “I don’t know where to start and what it would look like and who needs this. I need to understand what’s needed.”

At the end of the screening of Atlantis Rebirth at St. Thomas, Madimutsa and van Arneman asked the audience to answer for themselves a series of questions.

“Each of you got a candle,” said van Arneman. “After the show, I want you to go home and light that candle and reflect on what steps are necessary to get to that utopia. Who is included, who is excluded, and why? How will you share your gifts to build Atlantis?”

Born in Cameroon and raised on St. Paul’s East Side, Jeffrey Bissoy has honed a passion for bridging and uplifting POC communities via storytelling and community engagement. He’s worked or freelanced...