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JAE dance company explores trauma, Haitian history in ‘Traka’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
JAE dance company explores trauma, Haitian history in ‘Traka’
Jean Appolon Expressions dance company PHOTO: OLIVIA MOON PHOTOGRAPHY

Contemporary and Haitian fusion dance troupe Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE) will debut a powerful new piece, “Traka,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on May 13 and 14. Presented by Global Arts Live, “Traka” explores trauma and the healing power of movement through the lens of Haitian history.

The word Traka translates to “troubles” in Haitian Kreyòl. Jean Appolon immigrated to the United States when he was 16 after his father was killed in Haiti for political reasons. “For many years since I started to dance, I wanted to share the story of what happened to my dad in Haiti,” he says. “I really wanted to talk about mental health and mental illness and how people deal with mental stress. And how we can use movement to really deal with these stresses.”

Jean Appolon Expressions dance company PHOTO: OLIVIA MOON PHOTOGRAPHY

“Traka” has taken many years to develop, in part because it deals with deep-seated trauma. For Appolon, trauma is connected to the death of his father and the political upheaval that chases his home country. But he required his troupe, too, to tap into their own histories to fuel the performance. Part of the preparation was bringing in therapists to work with the troupe on channeling their emotions into the work. Work on the show began in 2018, but the pandemic offered an opportunity to experience and reflect on collective trauma in a way that brought a new dimension to the work.

JAE blends traditional Haitian folk dance with contemporary movements and techniques. In this way, Appolon harnesses the raw power and passion of Haitian dance with the modern dance vernacular better understood and accepted by audiences.

“Haiti is a country with a lot of culture and a lot of history, and the dance is very grounded in Haiti. For me, I felt like including modern into the work really helped,” says Appolon. “I wanted to use those lines and those languages of modern dance to be able to be more clear on the message that we have.” In a way, this utilization of modern dance was an act of translation for audiences.

Jean Appolon Expressions dance company performs “Traka” May 13 and 14 at ICA/Boston. PHOTO: OLIVIA MOON PHOTOGRAPHY

On Thursday, May 5, Global Arts Live will host a virtual panel discussion moderated by Nadia Milad Issa, JAE dancer and cultural strategist and featuring Jean Appolon, JAE co-founder and artistic director; Dr. Michel DeGraff, MIT professor and director of MIT-Haiti Initiative; and Dr. Guerda Nicolas, a University of Miami professor and psychologist. This discussion sets the stage for “Traka” by examining the historical and generational trauma of slavery and ways communities can begin to heal.

Despite exploring weighty themes, healing is at the center of the performance. “When I talk about dancing, it’s not only about putting on a pair of tights and dance shoes,” says Appolon. “’Traka’ is about coming together,  moving together and checking in on each other.”

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