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Dance Review

Jean Appolon Expressions works through ‘Traka’

Jean Appolon Expressions performs "Traka."Olivia Moon Photography

Jean Appolon’s father was killed in the 1991 military coup that ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Appolon left Haiti in 1993 and came to Boston; he teaches at the Dance Complex and at Boston Ballet, and his contemporary dance company Jean Appolon Expressions, which “is committed to creating hope and healing through Haitian Folkloric dance,” has performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Center for the Arts, and the Museum of Fine Arts. But it was the trauma of his father’s death that prompted him to create “Traka,” the evening-length world premiere that Global Arts Live is presenting at the ICA this weekend.


In Haitian Kreyòl, “traka” means “trouble,” or in Appolon’s words, “the bad memories of what I witnessed in Haiti growing up there.” The “troubles” of “Traka” aren’t just individual; they’re the troubles that a people bear with generation after generation, the troubles they have to work through and liberate themselves from.

Running close to 70 minutes, “Traka” comprises two “Movements” with a “Musical Interlude.” The opening “Ginen” (“Roots”) finds the company’s eight core dancers — one man and seven women — in belted robes and wide-brimmed hats swiveling to a propulsive, kinetic beat delivered live by Haitian afrofuturist, turntablist, and drummer Val Jeanty, who’s also a Berklee College of Music professor. Shards of voiceover are intelligible; “the day the first white person” and “slaves captured” suffice to limn Haiti’s history of colonialism and racism. Dimly lit, the dancers enact a ritual, flailing their arms in imprecation, grabbing an outstretched flexed foot, bowing in subjugation but also drawing strength from the ground, from their roots. It’s primal but also sophisticated in the way that, toward the end, Appolon has dancers executing the same phrase at different tempos.

“Ogouba” is the name of a traditional warrior spirit. Nadia Issa shakes, extends a foot, hops backward, looks up as if waiting for the warrior spirit to descend. The battle to accept, to embody that spirit is not easy. In “Kouzen” (“Cousin,” encompassing family members but also close friends), IJ Chan and Meghan Riling act out a relationship that’s fraught as well as fulfilling; meanwhile, Lonnie Stanton circles round them like an unhappy outsider. In “Espri” (“Spirits”), Meghan McGrath and Mcebisi Xotyeni are possessed by spirits; eventually their confident shoulder movements suggest that, like Issa in “Ogouba,” they’ve accepted and embodied. The quartet in “Raj” (“Rage”) seem more like enslaved people on the run at first. Only through a succession of imaginative and acrobatic floor exercises does the anger surface.


The “Musical Interlude” allows Jeanty to show off her considerable skills as she impersonates a one-woman orchestra. She’s accompanied by dancer Buyile Toyvo Narwele, who in his only appearance of the evening serves up a less folkloric, more contemporary style of acrobatics, finishing with a hard look at the audience. It’s a refreshing palate cleanser.

The second half of “Traka” loses some focus as it moves from “Zantray” (“Guts”) to “Tranzisyon” (“Transition”), “Koneksyon” (“Connection”), and “Lespwa” (“Hope”). Though the dancing isn’t any less inspired, or accomplished, it’s hard to detect a progression toward “Hope.” What does register is the dancers’ insistent energy, authenticity, and individuality. “Traka” reminds us that regardless of what language colonialism and slavery speak, dance is the language of liberation.


Performed by Jean Appolon Expressions. Presented by Global Arts Live. At: Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, Friday, May 13. Remaining performance: May 14. Tickets $36-$40. 617-876-4275, www.globalartslive.org


Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.