Remembering Versatile Dancer and Choreographer Martial Roumain

February 4, 2022

A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Martial Roumain, choreographer, dancer, educator and actor, passed away on January 14 at his home in Manhattan.   

Born in 1951, Roumain was a gifted dancer who found his calling as a young man. He told the story of watching an assembly program in his junior high school and walking out feeling disappointed. His music teacher challenged him, “Can you do better?” A few weeks later, Roumain performed an interpretive dance that so impressed the teacher and the principal, they arranged an audition for him at The Clark Center for The Performing Arts in New York City. He later wrote, “I remember the fear and the excitement of this audition. For this little boy from Haiti had won one of the first full scholarships. The day I began, I felt like a beam of light had been turned on! My thirst for knowledge, for the different dance forms, was being quenched. I had entered a ‘village,’ so to speak, with nurturing, talented elders, guiding me through the different ways of movement and dramatic expressions. I found endless joy, creativity and freedom in expressing myself but, most importantly, how to share my craft with others.

At the age of 15, he made his debut with the Chuck Davis Dance Company. At 17 he was licensed to teach dance by the New York City Board of Education. After graduating from The Juilliard School, he performed as a soloist with the Eleo Pomare Dance company, the Fred Benjamin Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Jose Limón Dance Company, The Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theater, Contemporary Dance System, Joan Miller’s Dance Players and Forces of Nature. He also performed extensively on Broadway (including in Treemonisha as lead dancer, West Side Story as Chino, Bubbling Brown Sugar and The Wiz), as well as at the Metropolitan Opera House (The Medium, in the role of Toby, Ariadne Auf Naxos and Porgy and Bess) and on film and television.

Roumain was a dancer of great facility. He was well trained in the dance pedagogy of modern expression, but through his work with the late Haitian dancer/choreographer Jean-Léon Destiné, he had the opportunity to learn the old African rhythms as played by master drummer Alphonse Cimber.

His choreography (which won prizes at several European competitions) has been set on many companies, including the Chuck Davis Dance Company, Mafata Dance Company, Jubilation! Dance Company, Ballet Guadeloupeen, Trinidadian Dance Theater, Orchesis Contemporary Dance Theatre and off-Broadway productions of Carmencita, Marine Tiger and Women, a benefit performance at the United Nations for the women of Darfur, Sudan.

Roumain, like his mentor Eleo Pomare, was steeped in the theatrical experiences coming from The Actors Studio. Evidence of this is in his choreography of Essence—A Portrait of Four Women: He “recomposed” the musical text for the drama of his four female characters. He was one of the last of those immediate dancers/choreographers to stand on the shoulders of teachers and performers of African descent who married the music idiom of jazz in his life’s work.

Roumain also served as artistic director of the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company and as assistant to Eleo Pomare and Geoffrey Holder. As the executor of the Eleo Pomare estate, Roumain continued to stage work in Taiwan and throughout the U.S. During the last 10 years of his life, he was active with Clark Center NYC, where he staged ballets, spoke on behalf of the organization, and served on the board.

Roumain was a principled man with a brilliant smile who loved to tease and have fun. He was a cook and, like Pomare, loved to design and make costumes. His long-time association with Joan Miller, both as a dancer in her company and as costume assistant, led him to become custodian of her archives, which he guarded fiercely. He was a friend for life. He is survived by his loving sisters, Janette, Bonnie and Marie. He had a large family of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews around the country and in Israel, and a dance family who truly loved him. He leaves us with wonderful memories. —Rashidah Ismaili, Jill Williams, Joan H. Burroughs