To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.
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 St. Martin. 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 Atlantis13, 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 St. Martin and Zimbabwe, respectively. Yet, despite a small campus of roughly 2,000 students and an even smaller economics department, they barely knew each other.
That changed when van Arneman and a few friends leaned on 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 had passed on 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 wider performance project, Timeless Voyage. This dance piece represented their first time exploring the vast range of Black experiences in the Black diaspora, and tying that to the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and a history of resistence and resilience. “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 business and consulting 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.
The lyrics explore that history starkly: “Our mothers were pregnant African women thrown overboard while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb.”
The song stuck with van Arneman. “This reimagination of the Middle Passage gave birth to children in the ocean,” he explained. “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 make this a dance production.’”
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.Parts of Atlantis 13 address the history of police brutality and various forms of Black lynchings. Atantis 13 re-imagines a world where people have gained power over those deaths and overcome their existence.
“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 after they signed on to participate in Maia Maiden’s Rooted choreographers’ evening. Through Maia (aka Rah Fyah), a powerhouse of hip-hop and street dance culture in the cities, they learned about a $9,000 grant from the Momentum New Danceworks festival, co-presented by Walker Art Center, St. Catherine University and other affiliates.
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 krump, hip hop, vogue, capoeira, house, and other dances from the Black diaspora.
Beyond portraying how Atlantis was formed, Madimutsa and van Arneman worked to challenge audiences of different races and ethnicities on their comfort with Black love, death, beauty, suffering, 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 at the Momentum New Danceworks 2019 festival was a hit. From there, the troupe received invitations to perform across the Twin Cities.
The group’s growth continued when co-director van Arneman made the decision to return home to St. Martin.
Homecoming and Atlantis Rebirth
In the summer of 2019, van Arneman quit his job in consulting and returned to the Caribbean. It had been nearly a decade since he left St. Martin. 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 Arts in St. Martin, he began to research the histories of various Caribbean islands and how they imagined their way forward.
“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. Martin was new for a lot of people. For example, I knew I had to include the Marigot massacre of 1830; it’s still very unknown on the island.”
Ultimately, he created a series of pieces exploring this complicated history. One explored the Garifuna, a mixed native and Afro-descendent mixed population in Central America and the Caribbean. Other dance pieces explored the Curacoan revolution of 1795, the Haitian revolution of 1791, and the Marigot Massacre.
Van Arneman noted that these island histories don’t exist in isolation; their stories and experiences are intertwined.
“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 St. Martin 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 supported 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 St. Martin, 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 virus, 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 a COVID-related grant from the nonprofit foundation Prins Bernhard Cultuur Fonds Caribisch Gebied, and help from various community members, van Arneman decided to turn his latest dance project into a film.
Realizing that he needed a skilled videographer with an eye for dance, 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 and choreography transformed the live performance of Atlantis Rebirth into a documentary-style film featuring powerful voices and mesmerizing dancers.
The film, which will soon make its international debut, goes through a series of Caribbean revolutions. Through carefully selected movements and clothing, they illustrate the difficulty and violence that accompanied life in the “new world” , a place inhabited by Indigenous communities, colonizers, and enslaved Afro descendants. In the section depicting the birth of the Garifuna people, the choreography shows the interaction of African and Indigenous people and the struggles that ensued. As the film progresses, we watch interviews with Caribbean icons such as Martinque’s Aimé Césaire, Maurice Bishop from Grenada, and Daniella Jeffrey from St. Martin, 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 2021, AJ van Arneman premiered Atlantis Rebirth on St. Martin 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 St. Martin 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. Martin, 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 Atlantis pod and a new history to add to the Black collective.
“The goal is to bring Atlantis to Zimbabwe, and 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?”