“Traka,” the title of Jean Appolon’s new evening-length contemporary dance theater piece, means “trouble” in Haitian Kreyòl, and it’s a concept with which the choreographer is intimately familiar. Growing up in an impoverished country, his family hiding for months during Haiti’s revolutionary chaos, seeing his father murdered there when he was only 14 — Appolon had already experienced more than a lifetime of troubles before arriving in the US, settling in Cambridge with his mother and two brothers, and speaking only minimal English as he navigated high school.
But along the way, Appolon discovered dance, and he says it changed his life and helped him process his grief. “After my father was killed, I went back to dance class, and my teacher said I needed to dance,” Appolon recalls. “She said, ‘What happened to you was very atrocious and you need to find a way of healing, and dance can help you.’ As I started to warm up and hear all the drummers around us and see all the movement, it was the first time I cried, the first time I started to mourn my father. Dance transformed me, and it made me a better person.”
With “Traka,” which Global Arts Live presents in its world premiere May 13-14 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, Appolon hopes to pay it forward by providing a platform for examining trauma as well as a space for shared experience and release. Created with and for his Cambridge-based company Jean Appolon Expressions, the 75-minute work for nine dancers illuminates culture and community as pathways of healing. It weaves Haitian folkloric dance with modern technique and features original text as well as a score performed live by renowned Haitian composer, turntablist, and Afrofuturist Val Jeanty.
“She understands these traumatic stories we are talking about and makes them more powerful through her music,” Appolon says.
The mission of Jean Appolon Expressions has always been rooted in sharing the beauty and restorative power of Haitian folkloric culture. Appolon is also a teacher committed to a variety of educational and community-building initiatives for all ages and backgrounds, including free summer programs here and in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “Jean is an original voice and an exceptional person using his love and belief in dance to change lives,” says Global Arts Live’s director of artistic programming, Maure Aronson.
“He has such a graciousness,” says longtime company dancer and executive director Meghan McGrath. “He brings in people from all walks of life, creating a space so welcoming and comfortable because of what he gives of himself.” She recalls the origins of “Traka” during a 2018 youth program in Port-au-Prince. “I witnessed Jean being very vulnerable and open to learning how these students, negatively affected on a daily basis, [came] to this beautiful place of peace and healing with the dance movement we gave them.”
Appolon brought that insight back to his company dancers, and the multiyear journey of creating “Traka” began, incorporating not only personal reflection but interviews and research. It explores the idea of trauma as both individual and universal, from the impact of historical injustice like slavery and inequity, to the different ways all of us can respond to loss and other emotionally devastating events — shock, shame, anxiety, fear, rage.
McGrath says the pandemic and racial reckoning added another layer to the process, but the company worked with professionals like University of Miami professor and psychologist Guerda Nicolas to provide support and safe practices for examining trauma. “It’s been raw and painful,” McGrath admits. “But as someone who doesn’t like to talk about my own emotions, this allowed me to process trauma from high school that I didn’t work through in the past, and it comes up differently every time I perform, like it’s moving through me. Jean [says] the more he thinks about the various traumas he’s had and finds new ways to dance with community, the more he feels that healing, and I’m feeling that this can actually bring closure on some painful life experiences.”
Company dancer and cultural strategist Nadia Milad Issa adds, “How better [than] to dance to the vibrations of the drum to off-load that ever-presence of trouble?” And she believes that even people in the audience just watching the dancers move and breathe together, supporting one another, can feel a similar sense of acceptance, letting go, and the comfort of knowing they are not alone.
For Appolon, that’s only the beginning. He hopes “Traka” can inspire the energy for reflection and action. “I want each person to start questioning themselves and get deeper to see how they can be more connected to their communities, to be a better agent for social change.”
JEAN APPOLON EXPRESSIONS’ ‘TRAKA’
Presented by Global Arts Live at Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, May 13-14. www.globalartslive.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.